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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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From Triumph to Tragedy

By Larry Shields

At 11:30 a.m. on October 20, 2001, I stood at the foot of my uncle's grave in Section 68 of Arlington National Cemetery. Section 68 is on the southeastern edge of the cemetery, facing the west wall of the Pentagon. It was a beautiful, bright sunny day, much like September 11, 2001. Walter Paul Wentzel, SSG, U.S. Army, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, APR 11, 1924, JUL 16, 1979, is gravesite number 3679. It's all on his gravestone which squarely faces the Potomac River.

To my left, past the rows of sun-bleached grave markers, stood the Pentagon. To the west, beyond the cemetery, I knew, was Fort Myer. That was when I started to put a few things together. People's ties to aviation are stronger and more deeply rooted in the national psyche here than in any other nation. Two Americans invented and flew the very first plane, and we think that we make planes - like movies - better than everyone else. We even have an interstate argument going on between Ohio and North Carolina over rightful ownership to such designations as “First in Flight” and “Birthplace of Aviation.”

The U.S. Mint recently joined the debate with its new 25-cent piece honoring Ohio by calling the Buckeye State, “Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers.” (The phrase is politically correct, a carefully-crafted but imprecise compromise that is meant to include not just the Wright brothers but also Ohio's pioneering astronauts - John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and others. What the Mint's solution overlooks, of course, is that Wilbur Wright was born April 16, 1867 in Indiana.

As the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight nears, one cannot help but juxtapose the liberating flights of the Wright brothers with the suicide-to-freedom flights of the terrorists who assaulted innocence by transforming four airplanes on September 11 into instruments of mass murder. There is no telling for sure what the Wright brothers would have thought about 9-11, but, stripped to our essence as Americans, we can pretty much guess. As Americans, Wilbur and Orville Wright would have been just as shattered, traumatized and angered as any of us. As the inventors of powered flight, they would have felt a sense of betrayal at the perversion of their gift to humanity into symbols of unreasoning hatred.

But as aviators, they would have felt deep sorrow that the airspace in which they themselves had flown in triumph less than 100 years earlier would have been desecrated so coldly and viciously. Think about just how closely the flights of the Wright brothers are connected to the flights of 9-11. Take a map of the United States and consider the vast, open skies and the tremendous airspace contained therein. Zero in on Arlington, Virginia, and Lower Manhattan in New York.

Take the Pentagon crash first. When American Airlines Flight 77 swung low and fast over Washington, DC before circling back into Virginia and crashing into the Pentagon, it ventured into historic airspace. As the jetliner spent its final seconds thundering over Arlington and Fort Myer, it entered airspace in which Orville Wright had first flown 93 years earlier. From the parade ground at Fort Myer, located just west of Arlington National Cemetery, Orville made repeated one- and two-man, record-breaking flights in 1908 during U.S. Army Signal Corps testing before a fatal crash on September 17 took the life of 26-year-old Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge. Selfridge was powered aviation's first fatality. Orville himself was seriously injured, and tests were discontinued until the following year when he finally recovered. Then, with brother Wilbur alongside, he returned to Fort Myer to set more records during Signal Corps test flights. One flight was a two-man, one-hour flight with Lt. Frank P. Lahm around Fort Myer on July 27. On July 30, Orville flew a ten-mile cross-country flight with Lt. Benjamin Foulois that ended with the two circling Arlington Cemetery before landing.

The irony continues.

In New York the two 767's that slammed into the World Trade Center buildings also violated airspace that had been consecrated by a Wright brother. Just months after the 1909 Fort Myer tests had been successfully concluded, Wilbur was one of the star attractions at New York City's Hudson-Fulton Celebration. The Celebration had offered him $15,000 for a flight of one hour or ten miles. On September 29, 1909, less than three years before his death, Wilbur took off from Governors Island and flew around the Statue of Liberty and over a departing, Europe-bound ocean liner called the R.M.S. Lusitania before returning to the island. On October 4, Wilbur again took to the skies over New York, and, before an estimated one million people, he flew up the Hudson River to Grant's Tomb and back in thirty-three and a half minutes. As Wilbur took off, the Flyer nosed into the air with its front rudder lifting it over the New York skyline. And lashed to the rudder were two American flags.

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