View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Wednesday, December 17, 2003

100 Years

One hundred years ago today, the Wright brothers flew. Underdogs in a race to powered, heavier-than-air flight, they won. Rand Simberg over at NRO has a fine layman's description of how all the pieces came together. Although he misses a key technical point, which we'll get to later.

I'm the proud holder of a Private Pilot's license, issued by your FAA. William Langewiesche wrote an article for the Atlantic, reprinted in 1998 after JFK, Jr.'s death, called "The Turn," explaining some basic aerodynamics. That article is one of the main reasons I started flying. The whole operation not only made sense, it sounded attainable, which it was. And is.

Langewiesche knows what he's talking about. His father was Wolfgang Langewiesche, who wrote Stick and Rudder, one of the classics of flight instruction. For those of you not inclined to climb into a single-engine Cessna, Stick and Rudder is the next-best thing. A Cessna 172 is basically the same thing that was flying in the 1930s. The landing gear is different, the avionics are better, but the controls and the aerodynamics are almost exactly the same.

It was Wolfgang who made that point about the Wright Brothers. When turning the plane, the pilot has control over how much to bank the plane and how much to turn the nose. To keep the plane, and the pilot, from sliding all over the place, the turn has to be coordinated, those two control have to be made in tandem. The Wrights linked the two inputs so their turns were always coordinated. Today's pilots have to manage them separately. This might seem to be extra work, but trust me, it's invaluable in a cross-wind landing.

I love flying because you see the world differently from 500 or 1000 ft. up. You see more than you do from ground level, and you see more than you do from 30,000 ft., too. There's nothing quite like seeing your own neighborhood, or city, or house, from 50 or 75 stories up. City planning either makes sense, or it doesn't. Traffic patterns make sense. Get out over the plains and follow that survey line as it turns from road to fence, to path, to divider between fields. I have circled over Devil's Tower, flown directly over the Black Hills, and then seen Mt. Rushmore from the air. And I have flown over Hayden Pass, above the mountain-tops but also between them. (Just stay clear of the Military Operations Area.)

Flying in a small plane is a transcendent experience. If you've got $100, go down to your small airport - Centennial or Jefferson County, near Denver - and tell one of the flight school pilots you want a tour.

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