Books
3:35 pm
Mon July 12, 2010

Wings of Opportunity: The Wright Brothers in Montgomery, Alabama, 1910

Julie Williams, who holds a doctorate in mass communications from the University of Alabama and teaches journalism at Samford University, has written a tidy, entertaining account of the first school established in America to teach civilian pilots. More specifically, the idea was to teach individuals to teach others to be pilots. There were five students.

Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio

Julie Williams, who holds a doctorate in mass communications from the University of Alabama and teaches journalism at Samford University, has written a tidy, entertaining account of the first school established in America to teach civilian pilots. More specifically, the idea was to teach individuals to teach others to be pilots. There were five students.

All this happened in a cotton field owned by Frank D. Kohn outside Montgomery during March, April and May of 1910.

The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, had demonstrated that man could fly in heavier-than-air machines, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. Having, finally, been granted the patent they sought for the technique they called wing-warping (we would now call this an aileron), the brothers planned to refine their airplane, manufacture more and more of them, and sell these planes, some to the U.S. military or the U.S. government, but mainly to rich people who craved excitement. Flying was, at that moment, "the ultimate sport." Someone would have to teach these millionaires how to fly their new toys.

Flying conditions in central Alabama were far easier than in Dayton, Ohio. The land was flat, the winters much shorter with little snow and, very importantly, there were few vigorous winds around Montgomery.

The city fathers were ecstatic about this project. Montgomery was, at that moment, in a difficult transitional period. The population was growing fast, but the State Capitol and especially the Confederate "White House" were something of a "shrine to Jefferson Davis" and the Confederacy. Many revered the "lost cause" and looked back with pride.

Others, however, were looking forward and felt "it was time Montgomery and the entire South rose from the ashes of the dead system of slavery."

It was said that with the Wright brothers' school "the Civil War met the future."
There was in fact already considerable modernity in Montgomery to be proud of. A dam on the Tallapoosa River, 30 miles away, supplied the city with abundant electricity, perhaps the cheapest in the United States. The city had also installed in 1886 an electric trolley system, the first in America, arguably the first in the world.

As is customary these days in wooing Japanese auto makers, everything was done to convince the brothers to come. Appropriate land was found, cleared and made available, and a large hanger built. A stream of newspaper articles boosted the city and in fact, after the "school" was built, "they," thousands of tourists, did come, sometimes 3,000 per day. Horses, which spooked easily, were not allowed.

With the flying school, Montgomery would become, for a while, "the center of aviation in the United States." The Commercial Club of Montgomery, forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, was beside itself with joy. The Montgomery Advertiser certainly did its part, although at first neither the reporters nor anyone else knew anything much about aviation. It also developed that the Wrights were more interested in privacy than publicity, but they warmed and, at first reluctantly, submitted to interviews.

No matter. The flights made from Kohn's cotton field were astonishing and successful. Montgomery was mad for aviation, and although the school functioned for only a few weeks, Maxwell Air Force Base would later be established on that very ground, so the legacy still serves the city.

This little book is largely sourced from the Advertiser, articles and cartoons, and a good many wonderful photographs of planes and men. In the articles we see what folks thought the future held. Many felt airplanes would never carry many passengers or heavy freight, but would carry mail and important individuals. Some felt the airplane had military applications, but more, it seemed, felt it would serve to eliminate war by making everyone's military maneuvers visible and known to the enemy, eliminating surprise attacks.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on July 12, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.

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