My husband was raised in Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. His dad, like the dads of many of his friends, worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for decades.
I recall the first time (and the second and third…) that my husband saw a North Carolina license plate with the moniker “First in Flight.” He went on a diatribe about how the Wright Brothers — and their planes — were from Ohio. He was not keen on North Carolina taking any credit for the brothers’ monumental accomplishments in aviation.
When we moved to North Carolina, I braced myself for the inevitable pushback regarding our new license plates. Before heading to the DMV, I asked my husband if I needed to request a special plate for his car, one that did not have “First in Flight” on it. His response surprised me: “It’s ok. The Wright Brothers would not have succeeded if it hadn’t been for the coastal winds of North Carolina.”
On a recent trip to the Outer Banks, our family visited the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kitty Hawk. I was astonished to read about the countless trials and failures that the brothers faced and the number of times they lugged their heavy prototypes through sandy dunes in bitter winds for yet another trial. And they did it all under intense pressure; other inventors were simultaneously clamoring for the honor, prestige, and potential fortune associated with being the first in flight.
My family has had a home on the coast since 1985. That year they bought a rental home, which we were never able to visit in the summer because the peak rental income covered the mortgage the rest of the year. Consequently, I grew to love the beach in the off season, when I could walk for miles and not see another human being. Even now I prefer cool, quiet beach walks in solitude. On these walks my eyes scan the waves for dolphins at play. And I observe the dynamics and physicality of birds.
In winter months, gulls will regularly tuck up a leg to keep it warm (then presumably trade off, though I have never seen one do this). When walking on the beach with a friend as a teenager, I recall feeling sorry for a one-legged gull. My friend and I marveled at this creature’s ability to withstand such an injury. We spoke kindly and encouraged the feathered monopod as it hopped away from us. Then, with the flare of a con artist, the bird put its other leg down, effortlessly walked a few steps, and took flight into the wind.
Took flight into the wind.
Although I took — and genuinely enjoyed — physics in both high school and college, I don’t recall ever learning about the dynamics of flight. That is perhaps fortunate. This way I am still surprised and delighted every time I see a bird take off into the wind. Having grown up around sailboats, this feels counter-intuitive. Pointing a sailboat into the wind is called luffing, and it’s the equivalent of slamming on the breaks. The boat rocks, and the sails flap loudly in protest. A sailor points into the wind at the end of her journey, when she’s ready to take the sales down.
Not so with birds. To take flight, birds — and powered planes — face directly into the wind, no matter how strong the wind or how cold the air. By facing the wind, they can reduce the speed they have to reach while on the ground, allowing them to take off with less runway.
This is a powerful metaphor for startups and principled businesses. It may feel smarter to turn one’s back to the wind and play it safe. Or to go with the flow of the wind. That effort will surely keep a business on the ground. But from the ground, it’s much harder to see beyond oneself. To reach new heights, to broaden our vision, we have to face directly into the wind, take a few steps, and leap in faith.
Orville and Wilbur Wright studied birds. They developed plans. They built prototypes of various materials. They tinkered and tweaked. They failed and failed and failed. Success for these pioneers did not come until they sought and faced intense winds, head on, in North Carolina.
The Wright Brothers’ first successful flight lasted 12 seconds and traversed all of 180 feet.
It ended with a crash. And a celebration.
Then they did it again. And again. And again. Each time facing into the wind.