At a very young age Rick Young got a glimpse of human potential. His father, once a pilot in World War II and now a retired physicist with NASA, would take him to space launches in Florida, where Young had the privilege of meeting world-renown scientists and astronauts.
“I’ve seen that real people can actually do incredible things – that’s not so startling to me, because I grew up in that environment,” said Young, 61. “I got to meet these people, so I know they’re just ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
In the early 1970’s he realized this notion applied to the Wright brothers – the revolutionary pioneers of flight – whom he calls the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the early 20th century. During that time, Young, a Chester resident for 30 years and a pilot himself, discovered the “true story” of the Wright brothers was much more remarkable than what the history books and encyclopedias revealed.
He said their story is compelling because they used Humanity’s innate curiosities of the natural world – such as the flight of birds and insects – to produce “cutting-edge,” world-changing technology. His interest started when he first visited the Wright Brothers National Memorial where a Wright 1902 glider astonished him.
“Every form of life flies in one way or another; it’s part of our DNA as deep as it can go, this longing desire to do this,” he said. “Wilbur and Orville [Wright] were very ordinary people, they were just ordinary guys – they were curious.”
Young’s mission to build and then fly a replication of the glider blossomed into a life-long exploration of the Wright brothers lives.
In the 30 years since his fascination with the famous brothers’ from Ohio first began, Young has not only become a die-hard historian on their life-long contributions to science and technology, he has replicated their work. He has also co-edited a book, “The Published Writings of the Wright Brothers,” which was published in May 2000 by The Smithsonian Institution Press.
Since the 1970’s he has produced 16 separate reproductions of their gliders and machine-powered airplanes mostly from photographs he has of the original flight trials – as the Wright brothers left no blueprints of their work behind.
His gliders have been used for the Imax film “On the Wing,” the Discovery Channel, among others, and many of his gliders – exact duplicates of the Wrights Brothers’ models, minus a few differences in materials – are currently on display in museums across the country, such as the Virginia Aviation Museum here in Richmond and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Wright Brothers gallery in Washington D.C.
Young and his wife, Sue, who own the Halfway House in Chester, have been constructing the gliders for the last 30 years; they even spent their honeymoon building a replica of a 1902 Wright brothers’ glider. Sue, who oversees the fabric work of the glider construction, doesn’t quite share the same unrelenting passion Young has for the Wright brothers, but has still helped him fashion 14 gliders.
“It’s fun working together,” she said. “It’s great watching projects come together and the plans taking shape. It’s all just so exciting.”
This week the couple is traveling to Kittyhawk, N.C, for “Soaring 100,” a historical symposium running from Oct. 21-24 at the Wright Brothers Memorial in Jockey’s State Park, to celebrate the centennial of Orville Wright’s world record glider flight – which flew for nine minutes and 45 seconds – and the birth of “modern soaring flight.” There, the glider that they have been working on for the last several months will be on center display at the site.
To provide insight as to why he reverse-engineers the work of the Wright brothers, Young quotes the late Steve Jobs. “You can only connect the dots backwards, and only by doing that can you see where the future is going to go;” he said, “you have to understand how we got to where we are to see that the rate of change is logarithmic.”
“I want to demonstrate that you can do this stuff – it is rocket science,” he said, “but you can do it.”