The Wright Brothers: They Began a New Era

James Salter in the New York Review of Books:

Salter_1-081315The promised demonstration for the French took place at a racetrack outside of Le Mans and was flown in a greatly reconstructed airplane, since the one that had been shipped was virtually wrecked in customs at Le Havre. An expectant crowd, mostly local, sat in the grandstand along with many reporters and correspondents. It was August 1908, almost four years and eight months since the historic first flight. At three in the afternoon the gleaming white airplane was rolled out of its shed, and so deliberate were Wilbur’s preparations that it was after six before he quietly announced, “Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.” He was calm and self-confident though he and his brother had been continually regarded as bluffers and frauds. Berg said afterward:

One thing that, to me at least, made his appearance all the more dramatic, was that he was not dressed as if about to do something daring or unusual. He, of course, had no special pilot’s helmet or jacket, since no such garb yet existed, but appeared in the ordinary gray suit he usually wore, and a cap. And he had on, as he nearly always did when not in overalls, a high, starched collar.

He took off to cheers, then turned, and came flying back toward the crowd. He maneuvered gracefully, made several complete circles and ended by landing gently within yards of where he had started. He’d been in the air for a little less than two minutes. The crowd went wild. Louis Blériot, who was a flyer himself and present, was overwhelmed. So was France itself. There was immediate acclaim. Doubt about the Wrights’ achievement vanished; people were aware that another era had begun.

Through the summer and fall Wilbur remained at Le Mans flying and taking passengers up with him, continually drawing crowds that came by car and special train, magnates and kings as well as people from all over Europe.

More here.