The Flying Problem

The brothers had a vision and having a vision is an awkward business.  It excludes you from so much that other people take for granted.  Visions start out by being innocuous and end by being all-consuming.

How innocuous do visions start out?  Well, for the brothers it began when their father brought home a toy helicopter.  Made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor, it was about a foot long.  The boys played with it until it broke and then built their own model.

That’s pretty damn innocuous, right?  But it was a slippery slope.

The models they worked on evolved and people got hurt.  The brothers saw it as a mission.  And then they saw it as a business proposition.

The family business was paramount and neither brother would ever marry; lawsuits and patent wars, accidents and deaths, took priority.  But they presented a unified image to the public, sharing equally in the credit and blame.

The brothers understood that progress was due to be made and they would usher it in.  Events and opportunities lodged in their consciousness in a way that seemed beyond their control.  They wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information about the latest innovations.  Once the latest designs and publications were placed in their hands their experiments began in earnest.  Who knew where the experiments would lead?  It was a fascinating and dangerous path.  They stumbled along it, groping for the right direction.

Nothing could dissuade them.  Other experimenters had already forged ahead.  The brothers watched and learned.  They were patient and practical, biding their time.  They were undeterred and unmoved, even when the outcome was tragic.  Lilienthal plunged to his death, yet they insisted on following his lead.  Pilcher crashed and died, but it only reinforced the opinions they already held about how to proceed.

They identified control as the unresolved third part of “the flying problem.”  Sufficiently promising knowledge of the other two issues – wings and engines – already existed, they felt.  With this in mind, they paid careful attention to how birds changed the angle of their wingtips to make their bodies roll right or left.  The brothers decided this would also be the best way for a flying machine to turn – to bank or lean like a bird.

They puzzled over how to achieve the same effect with man-made wings and finally discovered wing-warping when Wilbur absent-mindedly twisted a long inner-tube box at the bicycle shop they owned.  It was the breakthrough they needed.

At Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they began their manned gliding experiments.  Powered flight was attempted a few years later.  During engine tests at Kill Devil Hills they endured weeks of delays caused by broken propeller shafts.  Following repairs, the brothers finally took to the air on 17th December.  The first flight, by Orville at 10:35 am, achieved an altitude approaching 10 feet above the ground, travelling a total of 120 feet in 12 seconds.

As the rickety airplane stuttered off the ground and went bobbing into the air, a deep rumbling was heard from the swirling clouds that loomed overhead.  “S-i-x… six point eight… miles… per hour,” god managed to force out the words with a bit of a struggle, mid-yawn.

“Pardon me?” the devil frowned.

“Oh, it’s something I always wondered about – the airspeed velocity of a flying monkey.”

“I see, yes,” the devil nodded.  “Although… they will get quicker, you realise.  Much, much quicker,” she smiled.  At that, the devil went on her merry way, her mind aglow with all sorts of appealing prospects: Pablo Picasso smearing paint onto the canvas of Guernica; the extreme cosiness of Dresden on a chilly February night; the gleaming miracle of Enola Gay; a blizzard of drones hailing down.  It tickled her to realise just how much entertainment there was to be had from all these peculiar little visions of flying monkeys.

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This story was written in response to the yeah write challenge #174 – This week’s optional prompt is: what is the airspeed velocity of a flying monkey?  The other stories in the link-up can be read by clicking on the image below.

summer174

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