Wright and Wrong

imgresAll the calculations show it can’t work. There’s only one thing to do: make it work.   –Pierre Georges Latécoère, early French aviation entrepreneur.

When I went to school in Murray, Kentucky, there were plaques around town that honored Nathan Stubblefield, the inventor of the radio.   The inventor of the radio?  I grew up believing that it was Marconi who invented the radio, although later on I learned that the guy who I thought invented the telephone actually held the patent for the radio, good old Alex Bell.

I guess that when it comes to intellectual property and who reaps the benefits of their labor, the game of who gets credit for what is important.   But for those of us who use toasters, it hardly matters who invented them.  What intrigues me, especially as I travel to other parts of the world, is the extent to which nationalistic pride comes into it.

Ask Americans who was the first to take flight, and they will almost certainly say it was one of the Wright Brothers.  Ask that question in France, and they will tell you not only that the French invented aviation altogether, but they will reel off the names of Charles Renard, Henri Giffard and Arthur Krebs—all French of course.  In Italy, they will mention DaVinci, although there is no record of Leo ever actually lifting off.   They will, however, mention Tito Burattini, who successfully lifted a cat into flight in 1648 (but not himself).

In Great Britain, they will tell you that it was Sir George Cayley in 1846, five decades before the Wright Brothers invented the “aeroplane”.  Cayley began drawing pictures of airplanes when he was 10 years old, which was around 1792.

In Germany, they will mention Gustave Weisskopf, who emigrated to the U.S. where he changed his name to Whitehead.  In 1901, a year before the Wright Brothers’ flight, he carried out a controlled, powered flight in a monoplane in Fairfield, Connecticut.   Although a story ran about it in the local newspaper, he obviously didn’t have as good a press agent as the Wrights, so he never made it into the history books.  Or, perhaps, his neglecting to change his first name had something to do with it.

National pride, I suppose, is primarily an extension of the instinct to protect one’s own tribe.   Without tribal identity one vanishes into the whims of those who seek to conquer. Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing most likely depends on the outcome, and the question of who gets hurt in the process.

In reading the history of the development of the atom bomb, for example, it seemed clear that national pride had little to do with getting there first.   Getting there first was imposed by the circumstances, but those who labored to split the atom did so more out of the spirit of the challenge than out of tribal identity.

I have been fortunate enough to know a few inventors, and none of them invented out of national pride.   They did so because they had a creative instinct, a love affair with solving problems cleverly and doing things better.  Money and credit are often secondary motivations.  National pride seems to come into play more by those seeking to find a way to attach themselves and their identities to the cleverness of the inventors they celebrate.   I may not have invented Swiss cheese, but you can rest assured it must have been another Eastern European Jew.  We invent everything.

What is most important is the spirit of invention itself, a spirit that has resulted for the most part in prolonged lives with less suffering.   That is noble, and that is the thing to be nurtured.

Miso Aviator

imagesI’m sure every profession has its way of distinguishing the amateurs from the professionals.   In aviation, the lowest rung of the ladder is “airplane driver.”  I heard it more than once in my training, typically when I did something wrong: “You don’t want to be a driver, do you?”

The next higher level is the pilot, the one who has mastered the technical aspect of flying, the one who finally makes the shift from the two dimensional steering of the driver to the three dimensional flying of the pilot.   But there is yet another level, one reserved for the masters of flight.  These are the aviators.

They are, of course, somewhat artificial and arbitrary distinctions.  Yet, just as Justice Potter said about the difference between pornography and art, “I know it when I see it.”

The aviation writer Budd Davisson describes the difference between a mere pilot and an aviator this way:  “The difference is that an aviator is the airplane, and they move as one, while the pilot is simply manipulating the proper controls at the appropriate time and sees the airplane as a machine that he forces to do his bidding.”

I have flown with a lot of pilots, and the best pilot with whom I have ever flown was my first instructor, Floyd Jennings.  I witnessed Floyd’s flying on several occasions, but the most memorable was on my second flight as a student.   The first and only time I had ever felt nauseous in a small airplane was on that flight.

The nausea, which seemed to come from out of nowhere, was so bad that I knew I wouldn’t make it down to the ground without creating an embarrassing mess in the cockpit.  I was sweating profusely and my face was pale as I was trying to hold back.  I finally told Floyd that I couldn’t hold back any longer.  He glanced over and saw the sweat on my face and my normally pink Polish skin shift to a whiter shale of pale.

We were about halfway through the downwind leg of the pattern in Santa Paula, which means we were flying parallel to the runway, but pointed opposite to the direction needed to land.  Floyd took control of the airplane.  In what appeared to be a single movement, he looked from side to side, cut the power to idle, pointed the nose down, swooped down and around, and in a matter of mere seconds, the airplane kissed the ground sweetly and almost imperceptibly.

Whenever Floyd took control of the airplane, I had the distinct feeling that he and the metal bird were one.  Though he was a grizzled, curmudgeonly character, his flying was seamless, effortless, like wearing a comfortable shirt.   When he moved the airplane moved, when he blinked the airplane blinked.  He met Budd Davisson’s definition of aviator to a tee.   This was sadly in contrast to my flying, in which I often felt that I was wrestling with a metal beast.

I am currently working on a collection of poems I am calling “One With the Miso.”  It’s just a whimsical, silly title, but I like it because on the one hand, it sounds meaningless, but on the other hand, it expresses something bigger.   We can eat or drink the miso (that is, be a pilot), or we can become one with it.   Whatever our behavior, be it simply brushing our teeth, drinking soup or flying an airplane, we can get to the point where our sense of self as separate from the universe disappears, and the thing that we do and thing that we are becomes one.