CEO of the Cockpit #25:

It's a cliche to say the world of 1903 was very different than 2003. But it is instructive to look back at that year and see what kind of world powered flight entered; to see what it meant to the Wright Brothers and to the rest of humanity at the time. AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit takes us back to those days of innocence when the world was much bigger.


The warm, carefree days of summer appear to be over as I sit in my 757 pondering the outside conditions as we prepare to yet again to voyage to Schwarzenegger’s lair — Los Angeles Intergalactic Jet Port.”Information Juliet is current,” began Todd, my co-pilot for this four-day hostage crisis. “One thousand overcast, two miles in light rain, winds are three three zero at twenty-four knots and the temp is zero. They’re using one-eight right for departures.”Exactly the same weather the Wright Brothers faced on December 17, 1903. It was a cold, wet and windy day and they had neither a computer-generated garbled voice to tell the conditions, nor an ACARS to send away for them. They had to do their first aviation weather briefing the hard way: They looked outside.”And you know this,” asked Todd, “because you were there?”Actually, no, I said, ignoring his ageist remark. It was to be almost a half-century before this pro pilot opened his little peepers on the world and began the aviation odyssey you sit in awe of today. I recently had to make a speech at the NAAFP’s annual convention in Shreveport, La., and looked up the December 17, 1903, weather report for use in my talk.”The NAAFP?” asked Todd.Of course. I’m referring to the National Association for the Advancement of Flying People. I was their keynote speaker this year and they asked me to make a few remarks on the Wright Brothers. It just so happens that I have a copy of my speech right here and — since we just got word of an hour-long gate hold on the ACARS — you have lots of time to read it.

Aviation and the Interconnectedness of all Things

A speech before the NAAFP
Shreveport Airport Holiday Inn
Stonewall Jackson Room

Ladies and Gentlemen, I come before you tonight right after the rubber chicken dinner and before the after-dinner drink-a-thon to speak to you about the beginning of aviation as we know it. Neither Wilbur nor Orville Wright could be here tonight (although I’m sure they would have wanted to) due to a sad combination of time and mortality. Had they attended this dinner party, after your questions about how they managed to live to be roughly 136 years old, you would have probably wanted a description of the world they lived in during the year 1903.Before that, we need to have a quick reality check here because where we are is amazing. Just think of how far we’ve come in the flying business in only 100 years. It took only decades to go from flying 120 feet to flying around the world un-refueled and non-stop.Sailing ships lasted thousands of years before they were replaced on the high seas by steam-powered vessels. It is a strange coincidence that the very first year that steam-powered ships outnumbered operating-sail transport ships was 1903, the year that powered flight began.It was a very different world in 1903 than the one we find ourselves in today. There have been so many changes in the length of time it took for Bob Hope to travel from the cradle to the grave.The United States was well below a third-rate world power that year. The Boer War had just ended for Great Britain. The English were the big dogs on the world stage. It was to be a future aviation battle — the Battle of Britain, in a war that bled their empire almost dry — that was the harbinger of the rise of the United States to world-power status.Teddy Roosevelt was the president that year, due to an unfortunate meeting of President McKinley with an assassin’s bullet. Teddy, by the way, was the first president to ride in an airplane. It is another coincidence that his youngest son, Quentin, was destined to die in an airplane. During World War I, Quentin’s fighter was shot down over France. The 95th Aero Squadron lost a good pilot; he became one of over 116,000 Americans we lost in that conflict, and we were given yet another interconnection of aviation with history to ponder.Quentin certainly wasn’t the first person to die in an airplane. That honor went to Lt. Thomas Selfridge, who died after a crash in a plane piloted by none other than Orville Wright.It is ironic that the first fatal airplane crash was perpetrated by the first airplane’s designer. Also, it is ironic that they didn’t drug test Orville post-crash as they would today. You see, the drugs they now test us for were also invented in the year of the airplane. Emil Herman Fisher and Emil Adolph von Bering were credited with inventing barbiturates in 1903. Next time I have to pee in a bottle to prove that I haven’t used them, I’ll think fondly of the two Emil’s …Around the house in 1903, here are a few things you wouldn’t have noticed:

  • Electric kitchen appliances (the first electric refrigerator didn’t get sold until 1913);
  • Radios or televisions;
  • Most homes still had no central plumbing, meaning no indoor bathrooms;
  • A car. They had been invented, but hardly anyone owned one. Which was okay because there was no …
  • National highway system.

There were some big historical breakthroughs in 1903, and you’ll probably be most interested in the ones that strangely intertwine themselves with the aviation world we experience today.Both MTV and VH1, as well as Rolling Stone Magazine and Kasey Kasem (who was probably alive in 1903) owe a huge debt of gratitude to 1903’s record-setting and record-producing superstar, Enrico Caruso. Enrico’s recording of “Vesti la Guibba” — which is probably Italian for “I Like Big Butts” — was the first recording ever to sell more than one million copies.Now, many of you may fail to see the connection between recording star Caruso and the world of flight. If so, I would remind you of the strange relationship of recording stars with crashed aircraft. Buddy Holley, Ricky Nelson, Leonard Skynard and Jim Croce are only a few examples of the bad things that can happen when you mix music with flying.Another important invention in 1903 that is also tightly woven into our experiences as pilots is the EKG. That little heart monitor and aviation-career ender was invented and first used in the year of the airplane. I’m sure that the inventors of the EKG never envisioned porky pilots like myself laying on a paper-covered table cursing their invention at least once a year.Jack London wrote “White Fang” during the year of flight. Charles Lindbergh was only two years old and Antoine Saint-Exupery was a healthy four-year-old future author. More famous that year was Tzu Hsi, the emperor of China (yes, they had emperors back then) and a little three-year-old horse named “Judge Himes” who won that year’s Kentucky Derby.Another interesting tie-in to the Wright Brothers from the year 1903 is bicycle-based. The Tour de France ran its first bike race through Europe in 1903.A lot of these items sound obscure and outdated, and if they do then I have made my point. The world was excited by the successful flight of the Wrights, but that news was mixed in with other news that they no doubt found more interesting and exciting. The Panama Canal, for example, finally got underway in 1903 after the United States successfully enticed Panama to revolt against Columbia and grant us a lease.Back then the Panama Canal was big news, and they never would have foreseen Jimmy Carter trying to give it back to the people of Panama, nor would they imagine Van Halen making a million dollars or more with a rock-song title based on their new little country. They certainly could not see a bright and shining future for the airplane either.They never would have envisioned — in their most wild and horrific dreams:

  • That one day a single airplane could drop a device that would obliterate an entire city and kill off 70,000 people in a fraction of a second.
  • That people would find traveling through the sky at eight-tenths the speed of sound so routine that they would complain if the flight were late or cost more than the price of a decent shirt and jeans at the mall.
  • Two huge world wars would be the main impetus for developing this new airplane idea into something fast and usable.
  • That crazy, hateful people would steal a few of these airplanes and murder 3,000 people with them on one fateful day in September of 2001.
  • That people born in the year of the airplane — 1903 — would only be 66 years old when the first human being set foot on the earth’s moon.

No, back in 1903 people in America were looking forward to a quiet 1904. The Olympics were coming to St. Louis that year, and they wondered if Hugh Doherty could win another tennis title at Wimbledon. They knew nothing of world wars, supersonic flight, nuclear bombs, temporary flight restrictions, first class medicals, ALPA, the FAA, USAF, or even the NAAFP.They lived in world where flight was a dream and not an industry. They generally lived only until their forties and they could only imagine the life we take for granted today.In today’s world, Orville and Wilbur are looked upon as quaint little bike repair guys with quaint little dreams. What today’s people miss is the fact that both Orville and Wilber were explorers, inventors and real men with cahones the size of basketballs. They were incredibly brave adventurers and true Renaissance men in every sense of the word.We can thank the Germans for hastening along the development of the flying machine because of the two world wars they fought us in, but we should all raise our glasses high for the real heroes of this flying world — the inventors, Orville and Wilbur.

Todd put down the wad of paper I had given him to read and, stifling a yawn, he punched some words into the ACARS to see how much longer our delay for LAX was going to be. I calmly awaited his review of my speech and it wasn’t long in coming.”So,” he began, “you don’t have any more of these kinds of speeches sitting around in your flight bag do you? Because if you do, I’m going to have to fake an injury and get off this trip.”Ah, it is nice to get back to the reality of my flying world and put aside — at least for a while — the 1903 world of flight where gate holds had never been heard of, nobody flew through clouds, and the term “smart-ass co-pilot” had never been coined.