restricted access First to Fly: North Carolina and the Beginnings of Aviation (review)
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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 180-181

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First to Fly: North Carolina and the Beginnings of Aviation. By Thomas C. Parramore. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. 372. $29.95.

This is one of many volumes that popular and scholarly presses are issuing in advance of 17 December 2003, the official centennial of powered, piloted flight. Early aviation history is a well-drilled field, and most of this gusher of ink will not tell us anything new, not about the Wright brothers anyway. A case in point is Thomas Parramore's First to Fly.

In his preface, Parramore contends that North Carolina's legacy of flight has been forgotten. His goal is to recapture it. His sources are local newspapers and a handful of personal collections, and he uses these sources to argue that "Tar Heels" (North Carolinians) made significant contributions to aviation beyond merely playing host to the brothers from Ohio. Ultimately, he seeks to persuade readers that, had North Carolina not existed, the airplane would have been invented in Europe. But evidence in support of this argument is lacking.

Parramore begins with three chapters devoted to early attempts to build flying machines in North Carolina, seeking to leave readers with an impression that these influenced the Wright brothers' designs in some way. The influences on those designs are already well known through the brothers' extensive correspondence, however, and Parramore fails to provide any new [End Page 180] evidence that Tar Heels were among their network of technical advisors. Without such evidence, he has no way to challenge the existing narrative.

The actual influence North Carolinians had on the Wrights is found in the fourth and fifth chapters. At Kill Devil Hills, the brothers relied heavily on the staff of the local lifesaving station for physical labor and on the townspeople for food and what little socializing they did. Here, Parramore is on slightly more solid ground. He recounts the Wrights' efforts as seen through the eyes of personnel at the lifesaving station, and this makes for an interesting perspective. He is right in saying that the brothers could not have achieved flight without their labor. But this reviewer cannot see how aid from these particular locals was any different from what the brothers might have gotten anywhere else. Were the people of the windswept dunes of Cape Cod, or the low hills of Huffman Prairie, Ohio, so very different? This is the question that Parramore would need to answer, but does not.

The remaining six chapters address other ways in which Tar Heels were involved in the early history of aviation. In chapter six, the most problematic, Parramore seeks to award William Luther Paul credit for the first helicopter flight, which took place inside a hangar sometime in 1907. Parramore's evidence for this is a handful of family documents, and he admits that they constitute weak testimony. But the quality of his evidence is not the most troubling aspect of Parramore's account. Rather, his claim for Paul's primacy suggests that he does not understand why the Wright brothers and Russian inventor George de Bothezat have received historical credit for, respectively, the invention of fixed- and rotary-winged aircraft.

The Wright brothers were not the first to fly, or even the second. But they were the first to design and operate a fully controllable fixed-wing aircraft. Likewise, de Bothezat demonstrated the first controllable helicopter in 1922. Regardless of whether Paul's machine ever lifted itself off the hangar floor fifteen years earlier, it lacked controllability, and Parramore shows that Paul knew it. There is little sense in taking off if one cannot get back down safely. There is also little sense in celebrating a "first" that happened to be a dead end.

The rest of the book recounts the exploits of various Tar Heels as exhibitionists, pilots during the Great War, and postwar racers. Nothing here will be news to readers familiar with the work of Joseph Corn, Tom Crouch, Dominick Pisano, Peter Jakab, or Robert Wohl, although these...