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Flight
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom Demerly in Anartica

100 years ago today, at 10:35 A.M. East Coast time, two guys from a bike shop in Ohio stood on a beach at Kittyhawk, North Carolina and made the first manned powered flight in history. It lasted 12 seconds.

Two guys from a bike shop.

The significance of their accomplishment is so profound it ranks right up there with harnessing fire, use of tools, invention of the printing press and mass production of the microprocessor. Their accomplishment has changed the way each and every human being, without exception, lives in our world today.

Two guys from a bike shop in Ohio did this.

I stood in that bike shop recently. That very place. I placed my hand on the counter with reverence and inhaled, hoping that somehow the utter magic of the place, the mysticism, still remained. That when I left the building I would take some of that with me- as though it were an airborne pathogen.

There are photos of the guys on their walls, some articles about their accomplishments, some wheels still in the truing stand that need to be finished. It is just a bike shop, a lot like this one and all others. But unlike this one and all the others it is the birthplace of a miracle.

What do you think it was like to work there then? I can pretty much guess. The owners were hardly ever doing any real work on bikes. The other guys had to pick up a lot of the slack while the two owners were messing around with “that thing”. They were obsessed by it, pouring over calculations and books and figures and tinkering with motors and cables and controls. Everyone in town had written them off as idiots or losers or lunatics. After all, they are just the weird bike shop guys working on this idiotic idea, this machine that flies with a man in it. It was a time of lofty dreams and big ideas. It was a bicycle shop, for God’s sake; they had more important things to do than work on mere bikes. They were busy working on human history. Best not take your bike there, after all, those two weirdoes are always messing with that ridiculous thing in the back yard.

It would seem that virtually every other major industrial manufacturing company had examined the idea of building a flying machine but dismissed the concept as “having virtually no commercial or military value”. But two guys from a bike shop in Ohio figured it was worth a try. Imagine that. The daring. The courage. The vision. The determination to dream of something so utterly absurd and never let go of it, even when everyone had long since dismissed your work as idiotic. I’m told that the Wright brothers were seen by many in town as the village idiots, although they were quite popular with local women. Back then women liked dreamers. Today women think dreamers are losers. Dream all you want, but unless you have a big house, six figure W-2 and a 9-5 job you are a loser, no matter your dreams.

Not a day goes by when I don’t think about that. Not a single, solitary day- that a couple of guys in a bike shop invented powered flight. To say that I am proud to be in the same business as them, in the same industry, only 1.8 miles from where their original store is now enshrined as the centerpiece of a huge museum exhibit commemorating 100 years of powered flight, is an understatement. We are the closest bike shop in the world to that holy place, and that is magical to me. It means a heavy burden rests on our shoulders: To somehow continue that legacy.

Sorry to disappoint mankind, but I guarantee you there is nothing on the drawing board here at Bikesport, Inc. that will change the very complexion of humanity. The stuff we are working on in the back room here is pretty banal compared to powered flight. We always have something fun going on, but we won’t change the world. Or Space. Or civilization. But I never forget that happened in a bike shop. And I will sooner be a slave to my dreams from 6:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. six days a week than slave to a slobbering boss dressed in khakis while locked in a cubicle and chained to a mortgage. Even if my dreams never come true at least I tried. On my deathbed I know I will have no regrets.

I walk next door to the gas station frequently to buy a diet Coke or water. I remember returning one day, as I often do, opening the door to my shop and then stopping in my tracks to watch a Northwest Airline 747-400 fly overhead on final approach to Metro Airport. Fascinating. Where could it be coming from? Who is on board? What brings them on this trip? Did you know a 747-400 carries almost two tons of food for the passengers and crew?

When I looked back from the airplane there was an old man walking in my store. He had momentarily stopped to watch the plane also. He was pretty old. He proceeded to tell me a story about when he was a young boy in Indiana. Some guys came to town with the circus on a railway car with this big thing on a flatcar. They pulled this thing off the flatcar and then all the boys in town came down to watch these two guys put this thing together in a farmer’s field and then lay a long section of railroad track in front of it. On the day of the circus they fired this contraption up, flew along the section of track they had laid, jumped up into the air and flew in a big arc around the field then plowed into the ground after about thirty seconds. “Those guys”, the old man said, “Were named the Wright Brothers”.

Sadly, three seemingly unrelated events happened this year that I think speak volumes of how times are different now than they were 100 years ago when Orville and Wilbur Wright dreamt of, then made real, powered flight. These things are a trifle convoluted so please stick with me on this for minute, I promise I’ll tie it all together at the end just like Quentin Tarantino does.

Scene One:
On Wednesday, October 15th of this year a 90-year old man named Patrick Dalzel-Job passed away quietly at his home in the small town of Plockton, Western Scotland. His son announced his father’s passing in the local paper. And the worldwide press descended on the town. Every major news network carried the story of this quiet man’s unremarkable departure from this life. The TV cameras showed up, the newspapers came, documentary and movie producers came. They grilled his son with questions, they wanted to interview Dalzel-Job’s wife, but learned she had passed away in the ‘80s.

Why all the worldwide attention paid to the death of this anonymous old man in this quiet town in the middle of nowhere in Scotland?

Dalzel-Job was James Bond. The real James Bond, agent 007.

In World War II Dalzel-Job commanded a naval special operations team in which a young commando named Ian Fleming served. Fleming, also a writer, was so astounded by the dashing figure of Dalzel-Job and his incredible courage under fire, resourcefulness and daring that he went on to create a fictional character based on Dalzel-Job. The character was called “Agent 007, James Bond” in a series of books that became movies that became a part of our culture and the very definition of masculinity for some people.

So, for every man (certainly myself included) who has daydreamed about being like James Bond but dismisses the idea as absurd or implausible let me assure you: James Bond was real. Perhaps he never piloted the space shuttle, wrestled a battalion of Ninjas in a hollowed out volcano or did combat with a seven-foot tall man with a limited vocabulary and metal teeth while bedding seemingly every attractive woman on all seven continents, but he was real. The exploits of Dalzel-Job died with him. No one person other than Dalzel-Job knew the entire story of everything he did in service to Queen and country. His military record reveals that he vacillated between being disciplined for some outrageous insubordination or that he was being decorated for heroism. But nothing in between. Never boring, never dull, never unspectacular. As they say, and I know from personal experience this is true: Truth is always stranger than fiction.

But James Bond is dead now. The real Bond is gone. And all we are left with is speculation over which Hollywood pretty-boy will be the next “Bond” while we watch increasingly crappy special effects scored to a musical theme by a now antique female pop star.

I mourn the death of Dalzel-Job. How I would have loved to meet him, just for a moment. Can you imagine?

Scene Two:
On Sunday, October 25th of this year there was another passing of sorts. British Airways flight 002 touched down on schedule at London’s Heathrow Airport after making a routine crossing of the Atlantic from New York’s JFK Airport.

Well, it was as routine as things get at Mach 2.1 and 60,000 feet. It was the final flight of the Concorde. In a spectacular triple landing the three remaining operational Concordes made a simultaneous approach to Heathrow and landed one after the other, passing loudly into the history of aviation and civilization.

In 1999 I was in JFK airport on the way to Casablanca, Morocco for a race. I saw a sign that said “Concorde Passenger Lounge”. I noticed there was no aircraft at the gate so I tried the door to the lounge. It was open. I went in.

It looked nothing like an airport gate. It looked like the inside of a fine restaurant or fancy club. There were comfortable seats, fine wood trim, nice carpeting, quiet surroundings and nice art on the walls. I was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, boots and a backpack. Obviously I was not booked on one of the $8000+ seats on the Concorde. A polite man dressed in a nice suit with a British accent appeared out of no where and said to me, “Good afternoon Sir, may I help you?”

“Ahh, no, ahh. I saw the sign for the Concorde lounge and wanted to see what it looked like in here. I am leaving on another flight in a few hours on another airline.”

The man was nonplussed, “Well Sir, Welcome to Concorde lounge. Feel free to look around, if you should have any questions or require anything, please let me know. I’ll be pleased to assist.” He quietly disappeared again.

Earlier that year I was assistant ride leader at Doug Stern’s Triathlon Training Camp on the island of Curacao off the coast of Venezuela in the Dutch Antilles. One of our clients happened to be an older man who was a Concorde instructor and test pilot. Fascinating man. He had flown almost all the jet aircraft in the history of the RAF. We had extensive conversations about the flight characteristics of the Concorde, the history of it, the technology of it (it’s actually quite an old aircraft, a first generation supersonic). I very much enjoyed meeting him. Speaking of James Bond, this man bore more than a passing resemblance to the character “Q” in the older Bond movies.

Three years ago I took my mother, now 82, to Metro Airport when Concorde landed there for a tour with the Nomads Travel Club. In World War II my mother lived next to the Boeing factory and my father helped design the B-17G Flying Fortress and the B-29 Superfortress. On this day Concorde was parked right against the fence in the executive aviation area. We were less than 50 feet from the four afterburner nozzles of the Rolls-Royce/SNECMA engines. A police officer asked us to leave the area since they were going to start the Concorde engines and taxi soon. I lingered as long as possible while my mother looked through the fence at the wicked looking, delta-winged insect plane with the pencil thin fuselage and droop nose. We drove to another fence line and watched while Concorde taxied and then reached the outer threshold. I dialed my girlfriend at the time, who had to work that day, on my cell phone and said, “Listen to this” then held the phone up to the fence. It was raining and the crowd that gathered was under umbrellas. One man brought a ladder and was photographing Concorde through a huge telephoto lens. The aircraft sat for a moment then ignited all four afterburners and long tongues of flame hurled it up into the mist. The sound was thunderous. Concorde stuck to the ground briefly then nosed up abruptly and was simply gone. Just like that. Vaulting into near space, two hours away from touchdown in London or Paris. By the time I was finishing breakfast at my mother’s house that morning the passengers we had seen boarding Concorde would be de-planing in France. When I held my cell phone back to my ear my girlfriend was giggling and squealing, “That was cool!” she said. “Will we ever fly on the Concorde?” she asked. I’m sorry Susan, (now Mrs. Susan Johnson), but I’m afraid we never will. Neither one of us.

When Concorde landed for the final time on October 25th it was the death of another dream. The dream of New York to London in the time it takes to eat the five-course meal they serve you on board. The dream of jetting around the world in the time it takes to drive to Chicago. Last week I flew back to Detroit from Bangkok, Thailand. It took two days total. On Concorde it would have taken half a day.

It was a dream to fly at twice the speed of sound, eleven and a half miles above the earth. I never flew on Concorde, and I regret it. I couldn’t afford the ticket. But now, in retrospect, It was much more costly to miss it. On Concorde you travel faster than a bullet. Imagine that.

And now Concorde is gone. James Bond is dead. What dreams are left?

This is where all the scenes kind of start to line up, and I go for the happy wrap-up and this long dissertation comes full circle. We’re almost done here.

The original bike shop that belonged to the Wright brothers was moved to Dearborn’s Greenfield Village years ago as part of the permanent exhibit. The business itself, Wright Brother’s Cyclery (recently Wright Brother’s Outdoor), remained in Cincinnati, Ohio. I phoned the store today in Cincinnati hoping for an interesting interview and anticipating that a lot of media have been contacting them with the 100th anniversary of powered flight. After all, this is the place where it sort of all began, and they are still there. In addition to bicycles and inner tubes I wanted to see what they were working on in the back room now, maybe a cure for all diseases or a way for people to travel through time. That’s about what it would take to top their last big accomplishment at Wright Cyclery.

My last big accomplishment at Bikesport, Inc. was paying everybody on time and flying to Thailand to do poorly in a triathlon. Pretty darn pale compared to inventing powered flight, I know.

When I phoned the Wright Brother’s store from the telephone number I got off the Internet I got a fax machine. I called directory information and got another number. I phoned that number and got a lawn service. I asked the guy at the lawn service, “Hey, do you have any idea how I can contact the Wright Brother’s bike shop?”

The man sounded like he had been asked that question a lot recently: “Aww, the last of that store closed about three months ago. They went out of business.”

Dream number three: Dead. No more James Bond, no more Concorde supersonic airliner and no more bike shop where powered flight was born.

So what do we have left? Is it enough to do your 9-5 sentence each day with weekends off for good behavior to do something half-assed you really enjoy (which you really should be doing for a living full time probably), pay the mortgage and live life vicariously through the “reality” shows on TV. Is that your “reality”, your dream?

What if the Wright brothers had been satisfied with fixing flats and selling bikes in Ohio. What if they said, “Oh, this is just a bike shop in Ohio. Some big company will have to change civilization as we know it. We’re just trying to sell enough bikes to keep the doors open. We have no time for inventing powered flight.”

What if Patrick Dalzel-Job had been satisfied with being an ordinary sailor and never taking a risk? Dalzel-Job was awarded the Knight’s Cross of St. Olaf by the King of Norway when he saved the citizens of the village of Narvik from a nazi reprisal bombing after evacuating the entire village in commandeered fishing boats.

And what if aircraft designers at Aerospatiale, BAe, Rolls Royce and SNECMA just said, “Rather than make aviation history let’s just design a practical airliner we can pack people into and charge minimal fares that has modest performance- like a big bus in the sky.” What if they had settled for less than a dream?

I’ll tell you what if: There would be no goal post, no yardstick. There would be nothing to top, nothing to shoot for.

So what do we have left now? What do we have to do? Clearly, we have to keep dreaming and acting on those dreams. The dreams that began in the back of a bike shop 100 years ago today that changed the world. The dreams of a dashing sailor from Scotland who grew to become an enormous icon and legend and the visions of a bunch of aircraft designers who thought passengers could cross the ocean faster than a rifle bullet.

Dreams start small but spin into something bigger very quickly. They always face the greatest obstacle of all: Lack of faith. Faith to a dream is like water to a plant: when you don’t have it, it dies.

We live in an age when it is hard and unfashionable to have faith in dreams. This is an age of the shortcut, the easy solution, the bending of the rules and the quick fix. It is an era of the “me” generation when self help books and Dr. Phil say, “You better look out for number 1 because no one else will”. It is the opposite of the Golden Rule. Sad times.

The funny thing, this is exactly the environment where dreams are born. The desert of ambition- dry and flat and void of daring and selflessness. This is when you see the cream rise. With the old heroes and the old icons (James Bond, the Wright Brothers, the Concorde) gone we are ripe for a new generation of dreamers.

I see those dreamers almost every day in this store. They see the possibilities, they are not afraid of failure. I can think of six of them right off the top of my head. The six guys that work for me. Innovators, entrepreneurs, hook-up men, favor brokers, racers, dreamers.

I see those dreamers come through our door on an hourly basis. Most of them start with the same line every time: “I am thinking about trying a triathlon” or “I saw this ride that I want to try but I don’t have road bike”. It is the beginning of people investing in their own dreams.

This holiday season I leave you with this admonition: Never sell your dreams short. Never listen to anyone who says you “can’t do it”. Never cave in to mediocre. And my best wishes to you- that in the new year you will follow your dreams to new places like the Wright Brothers, Patrick Dalzel-Job and the people with the courage and daring to build and fly the Concorde.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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