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Populist Pilots

June 2024
1min read


I greatly enjoyed Richard Snow’s citation of the passage on the Wright brothers from one of my favorite books, the too easily forgotten classic USA by John Dos Passos (“Letter From the Editor,” November/December 2003). It’s a lovely tribute, but of course that 1903 Wright Flyer wasn’t a “contraption whittled out of hickory sticks.” Wilbur and Orville, brilliant autodidacts, spent four years before that first takeoff collecting and digesting every scrap of scientific information on the theoretical and practical problems of flight amassed by researchers and experimenters in Europe and America. They then painstakingly tested materials and hand-built models in Dayton and Kitty Hawk. All the more credit to them— but their story doesn’t quite fit the national myth of an innocent pre-industrial America where simple folks with a knack for tinkering could outthink university-trained experts. All the same, Dos Passos used the “bicycle mechanics” legend because it was in such great contrast to the corruption he saw around him as “the big money” took over. His argument reads beautifully if deceptively.

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