This article appeared in the Dayton Journal Herald on December 12, 1943
My Acquaintance With Orville Wright
“An Unassuming American…”
By Col. Edward A. Deeds
As Told to A. S. Kany
One of the great regrets everyone must have in evaluating his close friendships is that he has not known the object of his admiration over a longer period of years. I feel that way about Orville Wright.
In my case, there is a general tendency to date back our acquaintance long before it began. I am glad to have this opportunity to correct a few impressions that are growing because of the close, intimate friendship I now hold with Orville Wright, something which I enjoy and treasure very much.
I would like awfully well to be able to say in this interview that I saw the Wright Brothers as boys when they ran their “neighborhood circus” on the West Side. I would like to tell you first hand how they worked in their bicycle shop.
I would like of all things, to be able to say that I was down at Kitty Hawk and saw their first flight and be able to tell you that I overheard a lot of the discussions that went on between the brothers at that time.
I would like to be able to tell you that I saw Orville make the first wind tunnel, but the true chronology just doesn’t permit that sort of recital, because my acquaintance with the Wrights doesn’t go back that far.
My very first meeting with Wilbur and Orville Wright was as I recollect it, in John H. Patterson’s office here in the NCR. I recall that Mr. Patterson, who was a great admirer of the Wrights and their work, asked me to come into his office one morning to meet them. He had them stop in for a few minutes and the meeting was hardly more than an introduction. In fact, that is the only time I ever met Wilbur. I have always regretted I did not have the opportunity of knowing him better.
My friendship with Orville really began through our association in the Engineer’s club and was extended when the field at Moraine farm was made available to him for some experimental work, previous to the First World War.
That was really the beginning of my acquaintance with Orville. I didn’t come to Dayton until 1897 and I was away from 1901 to 1903, building the Shredded Wheat plant at Niagara Falls. Later C. F. Kettering and I were busy in a barn working on automobile ignition. We didn’t bring this out until 1911 and that was eight years after the first successful flight of the Wrights. Those were the years of Orville and Wilbur’s greatest activity, and Ket’s and my years of small beginning.
But our work on ignition led to my first real contact with Orville, in Washington. That was after we had developed the Delco ignition and I went down there to try to get him to use the new ignition on his airplane.
Meets Orville Again
After going through a lot of formality to get access to the field, I finally met Orville in the little shed he had established there. He was very cordial and nice and after learning what I had to offer, said, “Well, that’s very interesting but ignition is about the only thing we haven’t had trouble with on the plane, so I don’t think we would be interested.” That ended our interview.
I think a great many people hereabouts can recall the days when the Wright Brothers were flying out at Huffman field and the whole business was something of a curiosity. Like a great many others, I would go out there on the traction line on a quiet day when flying conditions seemed to be good, and share with the other spectators an interest in the proceedings.
The most thrilling thing I recall of those early flying days was the time of the big celebration here in 1909 when Dayton welcomed the Wrights back from their foreign triumphs with parades through the highly-decorated downtown business district.
Orville made a flight over the city at that time, the first flight Daytonians had seen outside of the Huffman prairie flights, and it was something wonderful to behold. I remember I was over on the Riverdale end of the Main street bridge, as were thousands of others, and along toward early evening Orville came flying in from the east, made a circle over the city, and flew back.
He flew at a great height, so that if anything went wrong—probably it would be better to say “when” something went wrong—he would probably be high enough to glide back to the field. Lumps came into the throats of everyone, and there were tears in the eyes of many men at a sight which few had ever dreamed they’d see.
Orville made other interesting flights in Dayton, one in particular that few people know about. He had a flying boat at one time which he tried out in the Miami river this side of the Pinnacles. Orville never recalls that flight without one of his characteristic laughs because of a humorous incident which happened. Something went wrong and the whole machine plunged down under the deep water, taking with it Orville and Jim Jacobs, who was with him in the flying boat.
Orville scrambled to the surface, followed by Jim who excitedly said: “I’m glad you’re all right, Orville. I called out to you twice while we were under there and you didn’t answer.”
I have always felt that one of the great decisions of history was made by the Wright Brothers when they decided to ignore all previous formulae and data on gliders and heavier-than-air experiments, and start over entirely new. The beginning of aviation really dates from the day of that decision. Orville should be given most of the credit for that decision.
The invention of the airplane stands out in bold relief when contrasted with other inventions. Generally, our inventions are developments built cumulatively upon past experiences, each succeeding one adding something to what has gone before, until finally there is the completed, successful invention. The Wright brothers, however, threw away everything that had preceded them and started again from scratch.
What they accomplished resulted largely from the little wind tunnel they built. Empirically, and out of all this painstaking investigation and scientific research, they evolved the formulae which made heavier-than-air flight possible, and which we use today in our most modern airplanes.
Controls were developed in the same diligent and careful manner, and their work on propeller design was equally brilliant and original.
Orville and Wilbur must have spent a great deal of time in the discussion of subjects pertaining to their work. I am told that, normally, each would take the opposite side of a question. They were so earnest and serious about it that after hours of discussion, often far into the night, they would wake up in the morning, each having convinced the other, and thus the discussion would start all over again with them having changed sides.
Because of the great variation of wind velocity at Kitty Hawk, most of the time was unfavorable for their experiments. During their long periods of non-flying conditions, they used to put in a few hours each day at what they termed “mental practice.” In the early machines, the pilot lay down flat to handle the controls. By “mental practice,” they meant lying down in the machine and, with their shoulders in the control yoke, go through the motions of controlling the machine.
Orville Used Plane
Orville always used the airplane, but Wilbur would say: “I can do my mental practice in bed,” where he did much of his. The net of it all was, I think, that Wilbur cracked up more airplanes than Orville. His “mental practice” in bed wasn’t quite as thorough as Orville’s in the actual machine.
Like all persons who have something radically new to offer the public, the Wrights did not receive the attention warranted by the significance of their new mode of travel. Of course, no one had any idea or vision at that time of the size and possibilities of the airplane in war.
I treasure Orville Wright’s friendship highly. He is one of those great men who remain unspoiled by adulation. He is witty and has a keen sense of humor. While he never makes a public speech, he is an interesting and entertaining conversationalist, especially if the subject is a scientific one.
It must have been marvelous to have known both the Wright Brothers intimately in their early days of experimentation. Of course, I did not. I count myself extremely fortunate, however, in having known Orville Wright as long as I have. Once you know him, you find he’s the down-to-earth type—truly symbolic of unassuming yet courageous Americans, who contribute most to the world’s progress.