Making Orville Wright soar again


Inspiration: An Ohio man impersonates the aviation pioneer while urging young and old to succeed as the inventor did 100 years ago.

October 12, 2003|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Every presentation begins the same: Jim Spence arranges his props - an empty inner tube box, a ball of twine and a stick topped with counter-rotating propellers - on a table before an audience.

In an instant, he transforms into his alter ego, Orville Wright, summoning forth that moment in 1878 when he and his brother, Wilbur, first turned their thoughts to flight: Their father, Milton Wright, brought home a Penaud toy helicopter, powered by rubber bands, releasing it as he entered their room.

Wilbur, 11, and Orville, 7, were amazed that it did not fall to the floor, but with a buzzing sound, rose to the ceiling. Little did their father (a bishop with the United Brethren Church) know that that moment would inspire his sons to change the world.

And so begins the story that Orville Wright re-enactor Jim Spence brings to children and adults around the country. He has been busy lately, in this the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. The other day Spence found himself standing before students sitting cross-legged on the floor of South Frederick Elementary School and wondering if he really had the Wright stuff.

He has the look of the past, dressed in a three-piece suit and a bowler hat that can't keep a shock of gray hair from poking out. Still, some seem skeptical that he will hold their attention.

"Ms. Bowers, is that the guy who's faking like Orville Wright?" asks seemingly unimpressed fourth-grader Nakiya Harrison, who is 9.

But when he speaks of the Penaud, grabs the stick propeller from the table, spins it with the palms of his hands and watches it float overhead, he wins a collective "Whoooooa!" from the more than 70 fourth- and fifth-graders.

"Can you do it again?" they cry out. They're hooked.

It's the kind of reaction Spence has provoked for the past 14 years impersonating one-half of the famous pair of brothers from Dayton, billing himself as the only professional living historian in the country who portrays Orville Wright. No one does Wilbur, Spence says, partly because the older brother died in 1912 at the age of 45 from typhoid fever and did not live long enough to see the evolution of flight. Orville lived into the jet age.

The motivational speaker-turned-re-enactor uses the "First Man to Fly" persona to inspire audiences with a story of invention, dispelling the image of the duo as tinkering bicycle mechanics who solved the age-old riddle of human flight by luck. His message is this: You can do anything you set your mind to, just like the Wrights.

This particular visit is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Carroll Creek, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Orville made the world's first powered, sustained and controlled flight of a heavier-than-air machine on Dec. 17, 1903, when, lying belly-toward-earth in the cradle of the brothers' Flyer, he lifted into the air for a 120-foot, 12-second flight over the sands of Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk. Wilbur flew 852 feet in 59 seconds on the fourth and last flight that day before a gust of wind damaged the plane.

Holding kids' attention

Now, "living historians" are re-enacting such events, bringing the sights and sounds of the past to life. It's the ultimate interactive anecdote to the fickle attention span of a generation growing up in the Information Age, distracted by video games, multiplex theaters and shopping malls.

"Nowadays that's how people are going to learn more: by seeing it live," says William J. Beausay, 72, a living historian in Columbus, Ohio, the mentor of Spence, 62. "More books are being published, but we don't read. If you can take what's been written and personify it, that's the ultimate form of communication. You can be an active spectator, you can question. You can't do that with the Internet."

This class gives Spence its rapt attention - with the exception of a restless few - as he details the highs and lows he and Wilbur endured as they labored to invent the world's first successful airplane, the 1903 Flyer. He mimics a plane by spreading his arms. He twists a rectangular inner tube box like a helix before their eyes to demonstrate the brothers' wing-warping invention, which made powered flight possible by allowing control of an aircraft's roll.

He gives them a visual sense of the Wrights' evolutionary designs by calling a student from the audience to help him unravel a ball of twine with little red bows tied to it - the first bow ending at 17 feet; the last one, a little more than 40 feet - illustrating the increasing wingspans of the brothers' first glider and Flyer, respectively.

Then come the questions:

How did you prepare your food on the airplane?

"The flight was only 12 seconds, so we didn't have much time to cook."

Did your plane ever get struck by lightning?

"No, but it was flooded while in storage in Dayton."

When did you die?

"1948." (Orville had a heart attack at the age of 76.)

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