Wisconsin’s budget shortfall sags past $6 billion. Home foreclosures and unemployment rates rise, retail sales and tourism fall. University tuition goes up, job prospects for graduates go down. Our schools cut programs and staff, but demand for a better educated work force grows. By all accounts, we face the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s.
So why am I sitting in the visitor’s gallery of the Wisconsin Assembly to show support for a resolution heralding the centennial of the first airplane to fly in Wisconsin. You would think–actually, you’d know–that the legislature has a mountain-high pile of more serious matters to consider. Yet here I am, part of a group of men and women, members of the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame, who care about the history of aviation in our state. We rise and wave when Representative Gary Hebl of Madison introduces the resolution, each paragraph starting with a “whereas” that explains and justifies why the measure merits the time and attention of the people’s representatives in these parlous times.
On November 4, 1909, an inventive and prosperous businessman from Beloit named Arthur P. Warner, made the first successful flight of an airplane in Wisconsin. He had purchased a newly-built flying machine from Glenn Curtiss, the New Yorker who, in 1908, designed and built the second American airplane that could fly.
Arthur Warner was the first American to buy an airplane. It cost $6,000 in 1909 money but he could afford it. When he took it out to a farm field on the outskirts of Beloit and flew it, without any training or experience flying anything, he became the eleventh American to pilot an airplane. Not only did he get the Curtiss Pusher, as it was known, into the air, Warner also landed without breaking his neck. He made seven or eight flights that day, soaring about one-quarter mile as the crow flies and all of fifty feet off the ground–about the same as the Wright Brothers on their breakthrough flight in 1903.
Arthur Warner introduced Wisconsin to aviation. As historians of flight, we in the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame, thought this event worthy of celebration statewide and we will be celebrating this summer. We’ll be touring the state with an exhibit featuring a beautifully crafted quarter-scale model of Warner’s plane. It was on display in the Capitol as the resolution was discussed and will be back again in a few months. We’ll celebrate in Beloit on November 4 with an re-enactment of Warner’s flight and on November 7 with a lecture at Beloit College delivered by Dr. Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of Aeronautics at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
While we watched, the Assembly passed our resolution declaring November, 2009 as the Centennial of Flight Month in Wisconsin. It did not cost the taxpayers anything–except for time and effort expended by Representative Hebl and his staff. It was recognition, the kind of recognition of our interests that we citizens expect from our representatives. In this case the item recognized was a cheerful landmark of accomplishment. Progress made. A new age begun. We know the cliches.
Yet there is comfort in these cliches. We face a colossal crisis but we tend to matters of seemingly minor significance. We ask our elected representatives to do the same and we all find comfort there.