The Ottumwa Courier

December 17, 2013

10 feet off the ground

Courier staff writer

---- — 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.

"Imagine falling off a 10-foot ladder," Palen said, especially at an airspeed of more than 30 mph.

Or even a ground speed of 7 mph; the Cessna 172 Palen was flying in Ottumwa couldn't fly at 30 mph, never mind 7 mph. His plane weighs 1,400 pounds empty; the Wright Flyer weighed 605 pounds. Their 12 horsepower engine is dwarfed by the little Cessna's 160 horses. In a flight 1,800 feet above downtown Ottumwa, Palen comfortably exceeded 100 mph.

Besides courage, what pilots admire most these days, Palen said, is all the information the brothers put together through research or figured out for themselves. They knew they had to have sufficient "lift" under the wings to pick the plane up into the air, so flying directly into the wind on a gusty day was key. They also knew that as one goes higher up a mountain, the air gets thinner and thinner. To get enough air picking up their wings, they wanted to avoid a takeoff at 1,000 feet above sea level. That, said Palen, is why they went from their home in Ohio to a field in North Carolina, where the ground was essentially at sea level.

When he made his short tribute flight in honor of the Wright brothers Tuesday, he shouted over the noise of his aircraft, "This is how pilots celebrate the first [airplane] flight. Flying is a passion for me! Without Wilbur and Orville, I wouldn't be doing this!"

— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark