The Wright Brothers
“It Wasn’t Luck That Made Them Fly”
The Wright brothers captured my imagination and interest when I was a young reader waiting in anticipation for the next book that would arrive in the mail from my book club. The stories of Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Andrew Carnegie, Galileo, and the Wright brothers were among those early biographical treasures that played such an important part in shaping my life. Using personal diaries, hand-written notes, letters, and varying other source material, their biographers painted such vivid portraits of their lives and accomplishments that I found myself standing before them, as in a portrait gallery, with a sense of quiet childhood awe mixed with gratitude.
Last year, after learning that a new book on Wilbur and Orville Wright had been published by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Citation, David McCullough, my early memories of these men were immediately awakened. This led me to quickly order The Wright Brothers, in the sure hope that I would gain a more comprehensive understanding of their lives and staggering achievement by seeing them anew through the eyes of McCullough’s detailed scholarship and his famed ability to “make history come alive.” Succinctly stated, this volume is the story of ”the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly.”
By the time I finished the book, I had come to the realization that these two men had not only opened the door to human flight but had lived by and modeled important life principles as worthy of consideration and imitation today as they were at the turn of the twentieth century. More on that in a minute. First, the story.
First in Flight
On the morning of December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright changed human history. Their flights that day “were the first ever in which a piloted machine took off under its own power into the air in full flight, sailed forward with no loss of speed, and landed at a point as high as that from which it started.”1 This is how McCullough describes the first successful motorized flights that occurred at the Kill Devil Hills, just south of the world-famous Kitty Hawk, a part of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On the fourth flight that day, “Wilbur flew a little over half a mile through the air and a distance of 852 feet over the ground in 59 seconds.”2
McCullough recognized and recorded how much this feat had cost the brothers. “It had taken four years. They had endured violent storms, accidents, one disappointment after another, public indifference or ridicule, and clouds of demon mosquitoes. To get to and from their remote sand dune testing ground they had made five round-trips from Dayton (counting Orville’s return home to see about stronger propeller shafts), a total of seven thousand miles by train, all to fly little more than half a mile. No matter. They had done it.”3 The dust jacket of McCullough’s book provides the concise reason why they had succeeded: “They never stopped learning.”
Only five men were there to witness those flights on that freezing cold morning. In an interview years later, one of the men, John T. Daniels reflected: “I don’t think I ever saw a prettier sight in my life.” Daniels stressed that “it would never have happened had it not been for the two ‘workingest boys’ he ever knew. It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense; they put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea and they had the faith.”4
Never stopped learning. Hard work. Common sense. Whole heart and soul. Energy. A grand idea. Faith.
More than 85 years before author Stephen Covey wrote his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Wilbur and Orville had already learned the now-popular principle: “Begin with the end in mind.” Covey elaborates: “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination.”5 For the Wright brothers, it all began with Wilbur’s early observation, that “while thousands of the most dissimilar body structures, such as insects, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, were flying every day at pleasure, it was reasonable to suppose that man might also fly.”6 Then, he read J. Bell Pettigrew’s book, Animal Locomotion; or Walking, Swimming, and Flying, with a Dissertation on Aeronautics, which “opened his eyes and started him thinking in ways he never had.7
Five Indispensable Principles
In addition to Covey’s second Habit, the fascinating story of the Wright brothers’ success in manned flight illustrates other indispensable life principles, including the following: (1) that vision comes first; (2) that there must be a wholehearted commitment to act on the vision (the mission); (3) that systematic, detailed study and learning are requisite to achieve the vision; (4) that patient endurance, hard work, and inconvenience is required; and (5) that worthy visions take time to realize.
Though the story of the Wright brothers is now over a century old, the principles by which they lived are timeless. While others were involved in fatal accidents while trying to glide or fly, Wilbur and Orville were meticulous in overcoming one obstacle after another until they were able to reduce the risks and fly with confidence. “It wasn’t luck that made them fly.”
G.K. Chesterton’s Observation
In the light of these principles, “Why,” we might ask, “do so many believers seem to stall in their walk with Christ or never get off the ground spiritually?” Chesterton’s keen mind offers some help: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”8 Following Chesterton, Dallas Willard claims “there is almost universal belief in the immense difficulty of being a real Christian.”9 It is worthy to remember that when Wilbur and Orville began reading, studying, and experimenting, flying was not only difficult; it was impossible.
What the Research Reveals
In his book, Growing True Disciples, George Barna’s research led him to the conclusion that “most born again adults are limited in their ability to grow spiritually because they have failed to set any goals for their spiritual development, to develop standards against which to measure their growth, or to have instituted any procedures for being held accountable to grow. Only four out of every ten churched believers say that they have set personal spiritual growth goals for themselves for this year….” He found “that six out of ten believers have no sense of what they want to become and roughly two out of ten have only the vaguest idea of what they might like to achieve or become spiritually.”10 Do Barna’s findings not offer the best explanation for the lack of spiritual maturity in many sectors of the church? How can believers ever expect to “fly” (grow to maturity) if the principles of Scripture, as embodied in the Wright brothers, are categorically ignored?
Little by Little
The Scriptures affirm that, after we trust in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation, we are to continue in our spiritual development and growth throughout our lifetimes. By definition, a disciple is a learner. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:16). New Testament scholar Philip E. Hughes notes that “to contemplate Him who is in the Father’s image is progressively to be transformed into that image. The effect of continuous beholding is that we are continuously being transformed ‘into the same image,’ that is, into the likeness of Christ – and increasingly so.”11 Calvin adds, “the purpose of the gospel is the restoration of us in the image of God which had been cancelled by sin and that this restoration is progressive and goes on during our whole life, because God makes His glory to shine in us little by little (emphasis added).”12
The reason Jesus spent almost 3½ years training the twelve apostles was because it took that long. No matter how difficult the task, He never took short cuts in preparing these men to take the gospel to the world. His vision was clear and included the categories of knowing, being, and doing. To say it another way, He imparted knowledge, character, and skills to the Twelve. Little by little, He was able to impart His life to these men and finish the (hard) work the Father had given Him to do. He was totally committed to preparing these men for kingdom service. His attention to detail in training them was perfect, and He patiently shaped their lives until they were ready, under the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit, to represent Him before the watching world and to share the good news of eternal life with the nations.
What I Learned from David McCullough
Since all truth is God’s truth, I read the story of the Wright brothers on two levels. First, I wanted to go far beyond what I had learned about them as a young boy. As with all of McCullough’s books, I was not disappointed. Second, I was looking for all the things that Wilbur and Orville thought, said, and did – the principles by which they lived and worked – which led to their ultimate success and the achievement of turning their beliefs and dreams into reality.
I discovered that many of the ideals they embraced were pleasing echoes – secondary and imitative sounds – of the voice of Jesus as preserved for us in His Word. He calls us to Himself that we might become like Him and manifest His name to the people He brings across our paths – no matter the cost, hard work, inconvenience, or patient endurance required.
An Invitation to Come Home
Could it be true that, for one reason or another, you have become discouraged in your quest for maturity in Christ and, without realizing it, have lost interest in having a vital relationship with God through Jesus Christ? Is it possible that you have been coasting, without any established goals for your own spiritual development or any standards for accountability with other believers? The Lord knows where you are. Jesus’ invitation stands: “Come home.” Like the Prodigal Son, return home to the welcoming arms of your heavenly Father and begin an intentional journey of following the incomparable Christ, seeking to please Him with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37).
You will need other believers to come alongside you. Two are better than one. It is doubtful that Wilbur or Orville could have ever succeeded alone. They needed one another. One of the premier environments in which you may seek maturity in Christ is a small discipleship group modeled after the one in which twelve, untrained and uneducated men were transformed by Jesus of Nazareth. A sustained commitment with like-minded people engaged in studying God’s Word together, being accountable to one another, practicing the spiritual disciplines, sharing life together, and praying together in Jesus’ name will not automatically cause you to grow. But, little by little, you will be transformed into His image by His amazing grace.
Come, then, and learn to fly – for the glory of God and the salvation of the nations.
1 David McCullough, The Wright Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), p. 107.
2 Ibid., pp. 105-106.
3 Ibid., p. 106.
4 Ibid., p. 108.
5 Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 98.
6 Mary Collins, Airborne: A Photobiography of Wilbur and Orville Wright (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2015), p. 5.
7 McCullough, The Wright Brothers, p. 30.
8 G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, date n/a), Nook Book, p. 31.
9 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), p. 1.
10 George Barna, Growing True Disciples (Ventura, California: Issachar Resources, 2000), p. 33.
11 Philip E. Hughes, Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), pp. 117-118.
12 John Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973), p. 50.