Being from Ohio, a lover of bicycles, and someone with a healthy fear of flying, I was naturally drawn to the story of the Wright Brothers. Wilbur and Orville ran a printing business in Dayton, then opened a shop where they built and maintained bicycles. Wilbur preferred long country rides, while Orville enjoyed racing and considered himself a “scorcher” on the track. While running the bike shop, they started work on their first glider, with much of the design and many of the parts coming directly from the bicycle.
Their first and most famous airplane flew from the dunes of Kitty Hawk in 1903. But that model could only fly straight, and was not capable of steering. Which is something that many proud Daytonians are quick to point out. After their success in Kitty Hawk, the Wrights returned to Dayton and developed a steerable design at Huffman Prairie, using a catapult that allowed them to launch, fly in controlled circles around the prairie, and land safely back at their makeshift hangar.
From here, things get progressively more insane. Their airplane becomes an international sensation and their pursuit explodes into an arms race that involves dangerous exhibition flights, near-lethal crashes, military contracts, and countless legal battles.
The sad part of the story is that Wilbur Wright was sort of an asshole. Although he technically died of Typhoid Fever, it’s more likely that greed and stress are what slowly killed him. Had he spent less time arguing with his competitors and more time designing planes with his quieter, more laid back brother, there’s no telling what they could have accomplished.
After researching the Wright Brothers’ story, I had to go to Dayton. The Dayton International Air Show takes place each year in late June, and is regarded as one of the best. So I booked a ticket and was off.
While in Dayton, I explored the National Air Force Museum, walked the Dayton Air Show, and visited the Wrights’ original bike shop on Williams Street. I saw one of the last remaining Wright Brothers’ bicycles, checked out an original 1905 Wright Flyer at Carillon Park, and spent an evening walking the grassy expanse of Huffman Prairie.
However, it’s unsettling to know that the humble, benevolent bicycle paved the way for flight and its future forms. The bicycle has turned out to be an intrinsically positive innovation, used either to get from A to B, or for pure enjoyment. Conversely, while flight is something many people use to get around, and/or for enjoyment, there are also many ways it is used to control or harm others — from surveillance drones and satellites to bombers, fighter jets, and missiles.
The aviation history and technology on display in Dayton made me feel fortunate to live in the United States. It also made me realize how terrifying it must be on the receiving end of all this deadly weaponry. Working on these images, I found myself wanting to soften them, to declaw them — and to make these frightening warcraft feel more like their harmless two wheeled ancestors.