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Meet Nick Engler

photo of Nick Engler and glider model at a demonstration

The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
Director and Chief Builder

Webchat Archives

"I have been in love with archaeology ever since I was young
the past is a constant source of wonder. Then I learned to fly and fell in love with aviation. If there hadn't been such a thing as aviation archaeology, I would have had to invent it."

Who I Am and What I Do
Aviation Archaeology is a multidisciplinary field; therefore, working as the Director and Chief Builder of "The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company" I wear many hats. I am a historian, researching the design, construction, and flying of pioneer Wright aircraft. I am an aircraft builder, supervising the recreation of Wright gliders and airplanes. I am an aeronautical engineer, evaluating the flight characteristics of these old aircraft, and I am a communicator, speaking and writing to share the incredible adventure that was the birth of aviation.

Aviation archaeology is a branch of a new field called Industrial Archaeology that studies the very beginnings of industry—in this case, the aerospace industry. Our Wright aircraft are part of an expedition in "new" archaeology, yet another recently-developed discipline in which scholars recreate historic and prehistoric events to gain a better understanding of the people who lived them. We are building and flying Wright airplanes to gain a better understanding of the innovative thinking of the Wright brothers. The expertise you need to conduct an expedition like this is a thorough understanding of the historical details—what knowledge, tools, and materials were available to the Wright brothers as they struggled to build a practical airplane. What kinds of skills are important to have for this position? First you need the same set of general skills that is essential to any historian or archaeologist. You must know how to use a library to do research so you can gain an intimate understanding of the point in time that interests you. And you need good communication skills to share the results of your study. I'm an author, a webmaster, and I feel right at home in a library. Then you need to acquire the specific skills and knowledge your subjects likely had. The Wright brothers were scientists, craftsmen, and pilots. So am I.

Growing Up
I grew up in Dayton, Ohio—the hometown of the Wright brothers. I went to St. Albert the Great Elementary School, then Alter High School. I was a fair student, but not a great one—low A's, high B's. What I enjoyed most about school was the extracurricular activities—band, dramatics, Boy Scouts, science fairs. I learned best when I was actually doing something. I always loved to write, but occasionally got in trouble for it. In the eighth grade, I wrote some unflattering stories about our history teacher that landed me in the principal's office. Many years later, I found the Orville Wright had done something similar when he was in ninth grade.

When I think back on my childhood, I was either reading something or making something. I read everything from Charlotte's Web to Mad Magazine to the Time/Life Book of Geology. In between, I built models, tree forts, rafts, go-karts, and a hundred other things.

Throughout grade school and high school, I had many different career ambitions. Artist, teacher, biologist, journalist, playwright. But from the third grade on, I always knew that whatever I did, it would involve writing. If I were a scientist, I would write about science. If I were in the theater, I would write plays. Sure enough, when I became a craftsman, I wrote about my craft. Today I am an archaeologist studying pioneer aviation, but I still consider my primary responsibility is to write about it and share the adventure.

Career Journey
I didn't get to be an aviation archaeologist because I followed a career path, but because I followed my passion. For many years, I made my living as an author and a craftsman—I wrote over 50 books on woodworking. When I learned to fly, I knew I would someday build an airplane. Because I have always been an avid reader of history and was fascinated with the story of the Wright brothers, it was natural that I would build a Wright airplane. But I didn't want to do it just for a lark—I wanted to contribute something that would tell the Wright history in an exciting way and help people better understand how they taught themselves—and then the world—to fly. So I began an educational organization to build, fly, and study all six of the Wright brothersŐ experimental aircraft that they made from 1899 to 1905 as they struggled to create a practical airplane.

Photo of Nick Engler teaching
What do you like best and least about your job?
Because I am so thankful to be doing this work, I refuse to complain about any part of it lest I seem ungrateful to whatever angels arranged this wonderful task for me. As a matter of fact, I can't think of a single thing about it that I don't like—I can't wait to get out of bed each morning and get at it. If there's anything at all that I don't like, it's that I have to sleep from time to time.

I live in an old Victorian mansion in West Milton, Ohio, just a few miles north of Dayton. West Milton is the home of Charlie Furnas, the first airplane passenger. The Wright brothers gave him the first ride ever in an airplane to repay him for helping them out. I'm married to my best friend, Mary Jane, a wonderful and patient woman, and extraordinary illustrator, who also sews the wing coverings for our Wright airplanes. We have three border collies—Tessa, Jenny, and Katie—who are as passionate about Frisbees as I am about aviation. I still keep my hand in woodworking, even though I'm no longer writing books—I'm a contributing editor to Popular Woodworking magazine. And I do a little inventing—I have a couple of patents for woodworking tools.

Photo of Nick Engler kitingI've admired many men and women for their wisdom and accomplishments, but my oldest and most abiding hero is author Mark Twain for his ability to tell it like it is with wit and humor. Orville and Wilbur Wright, of course, are high on my list of heroes for their courage, tenacity and imagination. Believe it or not, there is no museum of the Wright brothers. Many other great aviators have their own museum, but the men who gave the world wings have been overlooked. I am working with a group of people to correct that oversight.

A favorite quote of mine says: "Those who say it can't be done shouldn't interfere with those who are doing it"—Anon. Money has little to do with success. After their first successful flights in 1903, the Wright brothers added up everything they had spent on their aeronautical experiments and concluded they had just a little less than $1,000 invested. Samuel Langley, the most famous scientist of the day, had $50,000 in funding from the U.S. Army and another $25,000 in private funds to build an airplane. He tried to fly twice in 1903 and failed both times.

When you pick your life's work, follow your passion. If you don't know what your passion is, read. Read everything. Sooner than you think, the books you choose will make it crystal clear what you really care about.

Webchat Archives

October 16, 2001 Webchat

Last Updated: October 17, 2001


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