Thursday, July 17, 2003

Wrights' descendants enjoy a famous legacy

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandniece of the Wright brothers, and former astronaut Jerry Ross, a distant relative of the Wrights, on Wednesday help dedicate Huffman Prairie flying field as part of a national park in Dayton in honor of the Wright brothers.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
When Mandy Lane drives from her Wyoming residence up Interstate 75 to her hometown of Dayton, her name changes.

Her identity does, too.

Here, she's Mandy Lane, mother of two college-age kids. Hers is a perfectly regular, and rather anonymous, suburban life. Only her closest friends know her little secret.

Forty miles away in Dayton, Amanda Wright Lane is a celebrity.

She dedicates historic airfields at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. She gets interviewed on CNN along with John Glenn. She speaks, sometimes to crowds of more than 10,000, about her great-granduncles, "Uncle Orv" and "Uncle Wil."

Lane and her brother, Stephen Wright, call it "celebrity by association."

Moments of fame amid a life of anonymity are an appropriate fate for the descendants of - and family spokesmen for - the Wright brothers. The two Daytonians invented perhaps the most important machine of the 20th century, but died without reaping the riches one might expect.

Instead, Orville and Wilbur Wright kept working to promote and improve flight, all the while retaining their humor, their hard-working ethics and their small-town, Midwest modesty.

"I lead a double life, I swear," Lane said. "People don't really know that much about the Wright brothers here in Cincinnati. But in the Midwest we have this laid-back attitude about legacies.

"To Daytonians, even when they became famous, the Wright brothers were always just regular guys in the neighborhood."

Since their father died of cancer in 1999, the great-grandniece and great-grandnephew of the Wright brothers have made preserving the brothers' legacy their mission.

When: Today through Sunday. Gates open at 8 a.m. daily. Events end at 6 p.m.
Tickets: At Dayton- and Cincinnati-area Kroger stores. Advance general admission tickets: $18 for adults, $13 for ages 6-11 and seniors 60 and older, free for 5 and under. Tickets are $3 more at the gate.
Highlights: Daily appearances by the Navy Blue Angels, the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.
More info: Web site or (937) 898-5901.
The Wright brothers knew the magnitude of their invention - and also knew the possibility of airplanes advancing the future of warfare.

"They always hoped 99 percent of airplane usage would be for used for good, but they knew there would be bad things that would come of it," Amanda Wright Lane said.

Maybe it was naivete, but the brothers hoped airplanes could actually bring world peace - ending warfare as we know it as governments neutralized one another by flying so many reconnaissance missions and learning troop movements.

Two of America's greatest tragedies in recent history - the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Columbia space shuttle disaster - were both aviation-related.

People ask Lane, and used to ask her late father, if the Wright brothers still would have invented the airplane if they had known the negative consequences. Both thought they would have continued with their invention - but would have been aghast at the recent aviation disasters.

"I'm glad my father wasn't alive to see 9-11," Lane said. "Papa lived through World War II and saw the atomic bomb dropped. This was my generation's atomic bomb."

The past two years leading up to the centennial celebration of the invention of the Wrights' Flyer, the siblings have devoured family histories and Wright brothers reading materials, as the three towers of books stacked on Lane's living room floor attest. (Of The Bishop's Boys, an authoritative Wright brothers biography by Smithsonian Institution aviation historian Tom Crouch, Mandy Lane said, "This is my bible.")

First, to quickly dispel some of many silly questions Wright and Lane get when people ask about their bloodlines:

• "Are you rich?" No, their families both work for a living. Stephen Wright is a commercial photographer outside Dayton, and Mandy Lane was a flight attendant before she had children. Her husband works for a machine tool company. The Wright legacy isn't too profitable - Wright and Lane both quickly point out the Wright estate was worth between $1 million and $2 million, and Orville Wright named so many close friends in his will that nieces and nephews received only about $50,000 apiece.

• "Are you a pilot?" Neither has been a pilot, nor have they been especially interested in aviation until the past several years. Despite working as a flight attendant, for years Lane was a terrified, white-knuckle flier.

• "Why'd you move up to Ohio?" One of the most common misconceptions is that the Wrights were North Carolinians. "I really hope this celebration brings proper recognition to Dayton as the birthplace of flight," Lane says. "It's amazing how many people assume the Wright brothers are from North Carolina."

• "Do you fly for free?" Er ... no. They both have to pay for airline tickets - coach, not first class.

Not to say being only a few branches away on the family tree from two of America's most famous inventors is without perks and touching moments.

In early July, Amanda Wright Lane, 49, and Stephen Wright, 45, were invited to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to fly on a composite replica of the Wright brothers '03 Flyer, the original flying machine, which had been copied by engineering students at Utah State University.

After each flew a short flight on the wing's edge, an older man walked up to Stephen Wright.

His hands were shaking, his eyes filling with tears.

"I just want to thank you," the man said in a shaky voice, his heart full of gratitude for Wright's ancestors' contribution to the world.

"People have such reverence for what the Wright brothers did," Stephen Wright said. "People channel their feelings for the Wright brothers through us."

And it's those old enough to have seen aviation evolve who most appreciate the inventors.

"A lot of people regard flying as spiritual," Wright said. "That may seem hard to believe if you've flown on the airlines. But these pilots have experienced the freedom others have never felt, and there's no other way to feel it other than piloting a plane."

A peek through Lane's house leaves no doubt of aviators' gratitude toward the Wrights - and gives a glimpse at family history.

On a living room mantle sits a plaque signed by Neil Armstrong. The plaque encases a beige swatch of fabric and a piece of wood barely larger than a toothpick. Armstrong had sewn the fabric and wood, both cut from the Wright brothers' first flying machine, inside his spacesuit for man's first moon walk in 1969. Nearby is a Dec. 17, 2002, proclamation signed by President Bush that kicked off the centennial of flight commemoration.

On the wall are several black-and-white pictures of Uncle Orv; Uncle Wil died in 1912. In one he's at the family vacation spot on Lambert Island in Georgia Bay in Canada, wearing a starched shirt, a bow tie and a straw boater hat.

The anecdotes passed on by Wilkinson Wright, Stephen and Mandy's father, are priceless, illuminating the lives of men who never lost their curiosity for how the world works - and their childlike way of testing how to make it better.

Like the story about a summer day in Dayton when Uncle Orv, stifled by a back injury, tested out new shock absorbers he put in his car to make the ride more comfortable.

Orville was baby-sitting his young grandnephews. He took Wilkinson Wright on a country drive, then took a purposeful hard right into a ditch. He drove the young boy across a bumpy Ohio cornfield to test out his handiwork.

"We never felt we needed to know all this," Mandy Lane says. "But now we feel we have to read up on anything and everything we can on the Wright brothers."

Earlier in the year Mandy Lane spoke to a group of 2,000 female aviators - then later in the week spoke to 65 fourth-graders.

"That's what our lives are like now," she says. "One day you might be speaking to a Brownie troop. The next day you're getting interviewed on CNN with John Glenn. It's an honor that's unearned and undeserved, but you're still proud of it."

On Wednesday, Lane introduced astronaut Jerry Ross, a veteran of seven spaceflights and American record-holder for most hours walking in space, as the keynote speaker at the dedication of Huffman Prairie as part of a national park in Dayton in honor of the Wright brothers.

After the ceremony, there were larger crowds asking for Lane's autograph than for the astronaut's.

Ross is a part of the Wright brothers family, too - he's Lane's and Wright's sixth cousin, five times removed, they recently learned from Ross' genealogy research.

After the ceremony, Ross, standing near a newly unveiled Ohio Historical Marker, said: "To be able to come and celebrate something my relatives, distant though they may be, discovered after generations of people tried and failed, it's really special."

But still, despite the upsurge in Wright brothers and Wright family recognition this year, their anonymity will always beat out their celebrity.

After all, more people ask Stephen Wright if he's related to Stephen Wright, the deadpan comedian, than ask about the Wright brothers.


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