08 February 2010

Why do We do This?

The Hughes H-1 racer is a beautiful machine. It was originally conceived and built by Howard Hughes and his mechanic Glenn Odekirk in 1935. Several technologies used on the aircraft were groundbreaking, including flush rivets that did not protrude out from the aircraft skin, and retractable landing gear. The engine was a top of the line radial engine, the Pratt&Whitney R-1535, capable of producing 1,000 horsepower. When it was completed, with Hughes himself at the controls, it broke two speed records: the land-plane speed record (352 mph), and the trans-continental speed record. Hughes flew from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes, and 25 seconds, for an average speed of 322 mph.

The aircraft never flew again. In 1975, the Hughes H-1 was donated to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where it is still on display.

Several years ago, a team of aviation enthusiasts got together and decided to build a replica of Hughes' beautiful racing machine. Since the only other example was at the Smithsonian, special access was given to them to measure, photograph, examine, and create templates from the original aircraft. The team did research and contacted many people who were familiar with the original, including two of the men who actually worked with Hughes on the project. Hundreds of man-hours were spent in a fruitless attempt to track down the original blueprints. Since they were not found, the team had to "reverse-engineer" much of the aircraft from photographs taken of the original. Obviously, with a one-of-a-kind aircraft, parts could not simply be found or ordered, they had to be made from stock metals, which is a worthy project in itself!

Nearly 65 years after the original Hughes H-1 last screamed through the air, it's unmistakable shape was once again dancing among the clouds. The pilot, Jim Wright, broke another speed record with the replica. Later, in the summer of 2003, Jim flew the H-1 to the annual gathering of the Experimental Aircraft Association, Airventure, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

I was there. I watched it fly. I marveled at the highly polished smooth skin of the plane. Even sitting on the ground, it looked like it was going fast. There was a constant crowd around it, as people gathered and celebrated this beautiful example of craftsmanship. It was a perfect storm of aviation: A legendary man built a legendary plane, and then an accomplished pilot and a skilled builder recreated the legend, starting with only photographs of the original.  It was an absolutely beautiful moment, bringing together the best of human ingenuity, creativity, and skill.

But why did Howard Hughes build it in the first place?  One could argue that Hughes was attempting to sell the design (or at least the ideas) to the Army Air Corp (the forerunner to the Air Force), which in the thirties was in desperate need of modernization.  But why the focus on speed?

Why did he put so much effort into simply going fast? Why do we still do that?  Why do we still insist today, be it aviation, or sports, or endurance, that "records are made to be broken?"

We do this because we are drawn to excitement and exploration. We have been created that way, and aviation is just one small way in which we can express ourselves and this drive to explore, to learn, to constantly push our boundaries and expand our horizons.

John Eldredge believes the answer to this question is found in Genesis.

In Genesis we read that Adam was created, and then placed into the Garden.  Adam was created outside of the Garden, in the wilderness, where it is dangerous and unpredictable. Even still today, we have that deep longing to be out there, to discover what's out there, and discover ourselves in the process.

We crave the wilderness, the unknown.  We want adventure.

This is why we build cars to go fast.  This is why we build airplanes to go fast.  This is why we love looking through telescopes, or microscopes.  This is why we innovate and invent and build.

We have been created to search, to explore, to live in the wilderness.

Howard Hughes did it with airplanes.

Albert Einstein did it with math.

J.R.R. Tolkien did it with writing.

We can find adventure in the wilderness everywhere we look.  Sometimes, we start to think that all the adventures have been had, that there is nothing else to conquer or explore, that there is no more wilderness around us.

But that's a poor attitude to have.  I could say that all I do is work and then go home to my family.  Or, I could say that raising a two-year-old and having an infant at home is an adventure.  There is wilderness there, and there is adventure there.  I never know what Eli will do, and I get winded just trying to follow him around the kitchen.

The wilderness can be dangerous.  The adventure may well hurt us in some way.  But we accept these risks, not becuase we have some sort of pathological death wish, but because we know that in some sense, our lives are meant to be lived out in the wilderness.  Sometimes, Eli has a bad day, and then we all have a bad day.  Sometimes little Maddie won't stop crying.  Sometimes your theoretical models are scoffed at and ignored by your peers.  Sometimes, you can't find a publisher because everyone thinks your book is crazy.

Sometimes, your adventure will hurt you.  Jim Wright, the man behind the team that built the replica, and the man who flew it, was killed when the H-1 crashed on the way home from Oshkosh later that week.

But that does not make us stop.  We remain driven to explore, to push our boundaries, to fully examine the world we live in.

Because God created us to live adventurously within His Creation.

We just need to go find our adventure.


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