The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

December 17, 2013

10 feet off the ground

OTTUMWA — Orville and Wilbur Wright weren't your common, everyday bicycle builders, said a local pilot at Ottumwa Regional Airport.

"The Wright brothers weren't 'average' people," said pilot Tom Palen of Ottumwa.

There's no question he admires the thought and courage they put into that first flight near Kitty Hawk, N.C., 110 years ago.

"What they were doing was pretty wicked stuff for their day," said Palen, who has been a pilot for 30 years.

On Tuesday, he drove out to the airport just north of town, got in a small plane at Ottumwa Flying Service and prepared to take off at exactly 10:35 a.m. to pay tribute to the brothers flying the first heavier-than-air aircraft. There were virtually no clouds in the blue sky.

"The great thing about today is how much it [is similar to] that day, " he said. "Their winds were gusting to 27 mph, our winds are 24 gusting to 33 mph, almost the same."

Those winds were more important to the brothers, however. With only 16 horsepower to get them into the air, the brothers needed to use the wind in the same way we might fly a kite — the whipping winds were needed under the wings to help lift the airplane, called the Wright Flyer. On a calm day, said Palen, they never would have gotten into the air, just like on a calm day, the kids can't get a kite into the air.

When the Ottumwa pilot took to the air Tuesday, he only went up 10 feet, just like the "Flyer." He also tried to restrict the distance of his flight to the same as that first flight near Kitty Hawk: 120 feet. It's tough to get a modern plane up and down that fast, however. For the Wright brothers, that distance, about 40 yards on a football field, took 12 seconds. While the wind under the wings was about 35 mph, the aircraft, Palen explained, was traveling just a bit under 7 mph. There's a photo Palen found that appears to show one of the brothers jogging alongside the plane while it's in flight.

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