Livingston Taylor

December 1, 2006


"They read the work of
Lilienthal, Langley, and Chanute
But the theories of these pioneers
In test did not compute
So they cleaned the table to the wood
And started in again
To answer twisting riddles
So the sky would let them in."

So go the lyrics of the song Kitty Hawk, December Nineteen-Three, by Livingston Taylor. Raised in North Carolina, the poignantly poetic 55-year-old singer/songwriter/aviator has an understandable draw to the Wright brothers and their work, which put his home state on the map. Now artist in residence at Harvard University and a professor at Boston's Berklee College of Music, Taylor continues to perform throughout the country, and most often flies himself to his engagements in a 1964 Cessna 205A.

Taylor (it's more likely you're familiar with his older brother James) says, "My dream of flight began in 1955 when I was 4 and I saw a television ad for Sugar Jets cereal. This kid ate some, and started flying around the room. I got my mother to buy me a box, went outside so I wouldn't run into anything, and ate a few. Absolutely nothing happened. I was devastated. But the seed was sown."

More conventional flight training began in 1990 at Hanscom Field outside Boston. Taylor acquired his private certificate and instrument rating, then selected the big Continental-powered Cessna as his airplane. "It's a simple, strong hauler. I have a house on Martha's Vineyard and travel back and forth from Boston, always with a ton of stuff. It's a friendly airplane — and someone wisely welded the landing gear down in place, figuring that someday I might own it and be apt to forget to put it down."

Taylor flies between 200 and 250 hours a year, and says he is "constantly" undergoing recurrent training. "I'm a good enough pilot to know that I'm not that good. I'm rough on the controls compared with the great pilots I know; a ham 'n' egger in that way. I am very careful about not exceeding my limitations."

Asked how flying has affected his art and his life, Taylor answers like the poet he is. "Normally, we're bottom feeders in the ocean of air above us. Flying allows us an overview of this remarkable and beautiful planet. It's the ultimate reaffirmation not only of the human experience but also the life experience."

Taylor was moved by the methodical nature of the Wright brothers, and how fastidious they were. "They were able to recognize that to be the first to fly, the most important thing was to stay alive long enough to be the first to fly."

Like most pilots — especially those with Carolina in their minds — Taylor visited First Flight Airport on the Outer Banks, where he was inspired to write the lyrics for Kitty Hawk, December Nineteen-Three.

Livingston Taylor
©2002 L. Taylor/Morgan Creek Music (ASCAP)

We can fly
We can soar into the air
Look into forever
And find the future there.
Spread your wings
You're about to be free
Kitty Hawk, December, Nineteen-three.

What a time for human kind
What an era to be in.
Electric light to push back night
Einstein in Berlin
Edison and movies
Fords rolling wheels
Rockafellas energy
Morgan's ruthless deals.
Big men chewing big cigars
And chewing through the land
Destiny was manifest
Fate was in their hands.
Add to this mix
Two earnest quiet men
With their sister Katherine
The adventure did begin.
In the hubris that was the time
They decided they could try
To build a heavier than air machine
And climb into the sky.

And they could fly..........

They read the work of Lilienthal
Langley and Chanute.
But the theories of these pioneers
In test did not compute.
So they cleaned the table to the wood
And started in again
To answer twisting riddles
So the sky would let them in.
They found a place to test their thoughts Off the coast of Caroline
Private and remote
Windy all the time.
They learned of lift and drag and thrust
And wind-tunneled everything.
The delicate pitch of the canard
The roll of warping wings.
And the rudder was the final piece
That late one night they saw
The triad that became flight
Pitch, roll, yaw.

And they could fly...........

The morning comes the wind is right
The plane is on the rail
And Daniel's camera sees the moment pass.
For twelve small seconds
They fly across the sands
And the end of an ancient dream
Is here at last.

It's a hundred years later
But imagine what's in store
As we tug on God's great beard
And tap upon his door.
To the truth that lives in space
We have set our sights
Standing on their shoulders
Wilbur and Orville Wright.

And we can fly...............