Wilbur and Orville are unlikely heroes at a cursory glance: prickly with the press, selling their aircraft to foreign governments, and quick to assume ill-will. They were party to one of the longest and ugliest patent battles in history over the invention of the aileron by Curtiss.
For the Wrights it was all about control-- controlling things uncontrollable. Wind, gravity, drag and thrust—the same four invisible challenges pilots face to this day-- were more mysterious in 1903. Even today, we can see evidence of them, but we never really see them.
They were lucky. They accidentally invented the world’s safest aircraft design (canard), got more power from their home brew engine than planned, and were terrified of stalls (nobody in their day understood them). They angled the wings of their aircraft downward, when it was much safer to angle them upward, because they feared creating a self-righting aircraft would make the plane difficult to control during those mysterious stalls.
The Wrights were not the most formally educated of their day. Orville dropped out of high school his junior year. Wilbur just missed finishing his senior year because of an abrupt family move. But studying didn’t stop when their formal educations ended. They had a passion for learning.
They were the first to successfully use a catapult launch, make banked turns, use a wind tunnel, coordinate rudder and wing tip control, and so much more. Children born after 1903 grew up in world where powered human flight was a practical reality. We grew up wondering how to make it better; not if it was possible to achieve.
Heroes are hard to come by, especially nowadays. I admire their dedication and focus. I admire the courage and grit to climb aboard a home-brew plane in a 25mph breeze, literally throwing caution to the wind. They had the tenacity and brain power to build a flying machine, and they had some good luck. They took humanity one giant leap forward on this day in 1903. They were quirky, flawed, and driven to succeed. They were willing to be thought of as crazy and happy to be anointed true pioneers. The Wright Brothers, although never married, gave birth to a world of flight.