Orville Wright Was Still Alive When The Sound Barrier Was Broken
The Wright brothers‘ names are synonymous with aviation, having made the first controlled and sustained powered flight by a heavier than air aircraft. They pulled off that breakthrough, which had eluded everybody else, by not following the herd. Other experimenters had focused on inventing more powerful engines. Wilbur and Orville Wright focused their creative juices on coming up with reliable pilot controls.
Eventually, the brothers invented a practical three-axis control system for up and down (pitch), side to side tilt (roll), and turning (yaw). That control system remains standard on all fixed-wing aircraft to this day. That first powered flight, on December 17th, 1903, a few miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, earned Wilbur and Orville Wright a well-deserved place in the history books.
The Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk airplane, innovative and revolutionary as it was, was nonetheless a primitive string and canvas contraption, and that looked obsolete within a few years. As the pace of airplane development raced apace, the Wright brothers’ pioneering aircraft, and the Wright brothers themselves, soon seemed to belong to an ancient and largely forgotten era of aviation.
On December 17th, 2003, the centenary of the first heavier than air powered flight, the aviation world’s greatest living pioneers gathered to salute the Wright Brothers, at the site of their 12-second flight into history. Their ranks included Chuck Yeager, a WWII hero and flying ace whose aerial exploits included shooting down 5 German airplanes in a single day. He topped that off by becoming a test pilot after the war and cementing his place in aviation history by becoming the first man to break the sound barrier.
Yeager shared a stage in that 2003 commemoration with other aviation luminaries such as John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first men to walk on the moon. It seems incongruous that any of those luminaries of advanced modern flight could have had an in-person interaction with the Wright brothers, but it had happened.
Yeager was one of the few people present who had actually met one of the Wright brothers. Wilbur had died early, in 1912, but Orville lived until 1948, and Yeager recounted an encounter with him at a 1945 air show, where Orville got to see his first jet airplane. It took place two years before Yeager earned his own place in aviation history by breaking the sound barrier, so neither party at the time realized the significance of their encounter.
Not only did Orville Wright live long enough to meet Chuck Yeager, he lived long enough to learn of Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier in his Bell X-1 airplane, on October 14th, 1947. After describing the meeting to reporters, Yeager continued: “To be part of the Wright brothers’ 100th anniversary, it just makes you feel kind of clamped up inside“.