The Irony of Aviation History: A Niebuhrian Visit to the Dayton Aviation Trail

Last summer, my family moved from Berkeley, California, to Dayton, Ohio. As one might expect, it was quite the change for everyone, but it was especially so for our four-year-old son. Among the difficulties he encountered was adjusting to the relative lack of recreational opportunities. Prior to our move, he and I would set out on hikes at least a few times a month, venturing into the Marin Headlands or the Berkeley hills, where we would enjoy breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco Bay, towering redwoods, and more. After moving we learned that if this is what you think it means when dad says, “Let’s go for a hike,” it can be difficult to find excitement in the far more subtle terrain of the Miami Valley.

Fortunately, however, even if our hikes did not, we soon found something that excited him. Like many four-year-olds, ours is fascinated by flight. And Dayton—hometown of the Wright Brothers and only 60 miles from Wapokoneta, Ohio, where Neil Armstrong grew up—has a great number of sites commemorating Ohio’s claim to be the “birthplace of aviation,” 16 of which comprise the Dayton Aviation Trail. Touring these sites, my son found a captivating collection of aircraft that he studied with exceptional diligence. Meanwhile, I found a striking exemplification of Reinhold Niebuhr’s crucial insight that “evil is … inextricably bound up with good” in such a way that “the possibilities of evil grow with the possibilities of good.”1

2016 Spring_045 (2)The starting point of the Aviation Trail is the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center, which is located in the neighborhood where Wilbur and Orville Wright operated, first, a printing business (where they worked with Paul Laurence Dunbar, whom Booker T. Washington would hail as the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race”) and, later, their famous bicycle shop. Compared to the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, I found the Dayton sites to testify even more powerfully not just to the Wrights’ genius but to their ingenuity and perseverance. Not only did they have to develop their own wind tunnel, meticulously craft a variety of airfoils, and take painstaking notes in order to achieve the success they had at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but they then had to refine their designs through repeated flights at Huffman Prairie, on the outskirts of Dayton, in order to turn their invention into what they truly aimed to build, a “practical flying machine.”

In conquering the problems of flight, the Wright brothers unleashed a force possessed of great potential good, a mode of transportation that would link continents and make possible new and closer forms of relationship between persons. This new technology helped to create the “world community” that Niebuhr saw burgeoning in his era and the growth of which has continued apace since. It is little wonder that aviation is so frequently hailed as a “miracle,” even by contingencies so typically cynical as comedians.

And yet, traveling further on the Aviation Trail I was powerfully struck by the recognition that even as our bodies have soared to the heavens, our morals have experienced no such elevation. Nowhere is that more vividly displayed than at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, which includes three—and soon to be four—enormous hangars of aircraft and in many ways represents the jewel of the Aviation Trail.

2016 Spring_041Like so many similar sites, the Air Force Museum begins with an exhibition about the Wrights. But this one highlights a different dimension of their legacy. In the opening display, Wilbur is depicted giving flying lessons to a uniformed officer of the US Army Signal Corps, a reminder that as early as January 1905, the Wright brothers began seeking military buyers for their invention, a fact that casts dubious light upon the claim that Orville made at the end of his life, “We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the Earth.” Even if it were the case that the Wrights, these sons of a Christian bishop, had only pacific intentions, it would not be long before the bellicose potential of the airplane would be made manifest: the first bombing from a heavier-than-air aircraft was carried out in 1911, not even eight years after the Wright flyer first glided over the sands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Venturing further into the Air Force Museum, the history of airborne violence explodes before one’s eyes to include cockpit-mounted firearms, increasingly accurate targeting devices, and ever-larger bombs. By the end of the first hangar, one comes face-to-face with a replica of the Fat Man atomic bomb, which was dropped—not strategically but indiscriminately—on Nagasaki with a force equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT and killed perhaps 80,000 people. After passing through exhibits that matter-of-factly recount the use of napalm in Vietnam and Operation Menu’s bombing of Laos and Cambodia, one reaches a display of towering Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Once armed with thermonuclear warheads and part of a US arsenal that had the capacity to render the earth uninhabitable multiple times over, these weapons were dubbed—apparently without irony—“Sentinels of Freedom.”

2015 Fall_135This story of aviation—which with profound irony moves from the ingenious aeronautical tinkering of two brothers determined to free human beings from the fetters of earthbound existence to the astronomical enormity of thermonuclear war capable of laying waste to the earth—should offer a Niebuhrian warning. Most of all, we must not be misled into viewing such technical progress as ethical progress. Ingenuity should not be confused with morality, for even the most ingenious inventions can be bent to evil ends, a realization that should shatter the modern narrative of inevitable progress. Moreover, we must recognize that it is not simply others who bend the world and its inventions towards evil but we ourselves. Only in light of such realizations can we confront the moral ambiguity of the world and humbly seek to direct it towards higher attainments of justice. Now, how do I convey that lesson to the child who clasps my hand as he looks up at these weapons of war? And how might I help to ensure that he and all other children inherit a more just and peaceful world?

  1. Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 97.
Bradley Burroughs

About Bradley Burroughs

A native of western New York, Bradley Burroughs earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. He lives in Dayton, Ohio, and teaches at United Theological Seminary.

Bradley Burroughs

Bradley Burroughs

A native of western New York, Dr. Bradley Burroughs earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. Integrating his research in contemporary Christian ethics, modern social theory, and understandings of virtue, his first book project analyzes competing understandings of politics in contemporary Christian ethics. Brad lives in Dayton, Ohio, and teaches at United Theological Seminary.

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