seal  Purdue News

November 12, 2003

Book chronicles wings of Purdue's flight dreams

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – In August of 1911, just as the world was awakening to the reality and possibilities of flight, one of the greatest air shows ever to take place attracted hundreds of thousands of people to downtown Chicago.

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People filled official viewing areas in Grant Park and lined downtown streets to watch "birdmen" from around the world perform spectacular stunts, several of which ended tragically – not an uncommon occurrence in the early days of flight.

The Chicago Tribune's own John McCutcheon was one of the flight enthusiasts attending. He even participated in one of the flights and wrote a firsthand account of the experience.

Among the points he noted was his concern about flying with a man who had the grave name of Coffyn.

1911 public flight demonstration
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The great Chicago Air Show is one of many stories recounted in a new book, "Wings of Their Dreams: Purdue In Flight," by author John Norberg, a Chicagoland native. Born in Oak Park, Norberg grew up in Skokie and Mt. Prospect.

His book tells the stories of aviation pioneers who finally "broke the bonds of Earth" and a university that flew with them – Purdue.

With 22 astronauts, including the first and last men to walk on the moon, Purdue is one of the world's leading universities in flight. In addition to having one of the top schools of engineering in the world, it also is home to one of the top programs in aviation technology. The stories of several Illinois natives who are astronauts are told in the book.

Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan
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Norberg takes readers on a course from the Wright brother's Dayton, Ohio, workshop, to the moon, to Mars and beyond.

December will mark 100th anniversary of flight.

Norberg's book is available from the Purdue Press. It is 397 pages plus notes and lists at $29.95. To order, or for more information, contact Purdue Press at (800) 247-6553.

"Wings of Their Dreams" is a history of flight and a history of a university, all told through the stories and adventures of people who flew where no one had been before.

It is the story of daring men and a few women who flew thousands of feet in the air, sitting on the wings of their flying machines without seatbelts. It is the story of an age when flying was a sport, and the outcome was too often death. It is the story of men and women always struggling to fly higher and faster, challenging the stratosphere and then reaching far beyond.

It is a story in which Purdue plays a unique role. Purdue established the first university airport and one of the first academic programs in aeronautics and astronautics. Purdue helped finance the final flight by Amelia Earhart. Before NASA and the Mercury program, a Purdue engineer became known as "Mr. Space." Purdue created the first bachelor's degree for airplane pilots.

"Wings of Their Dreams" tells the stories of Purdue pilots and their impact on one of the most rapid and incredible accomplishments in human history, from the earliest days of the Wright brothers, to Purdue alumnus Neil Armstrong's moon landing, to today's space program.

It is a book with strong Chicagoland connections in addition to the downtown air show:

• It is the story of Eugene Cernan, born in Bellwood and a Proviso High School graduate. Cernan became the last man to walk on the moon.

• It tells the stories of Tribune cartoonist John McCutcheon and his love for flight.

• It is the story of Illinois and Chicago area astronauts including Gary Payton, of Rock Island, Jerry Ross, of Crown Point, Ind., Janice Voss, of Rockford, and Mark Brown, of Valparaiso, Ind.

• It also briefly touches on the story of Willa Brown, an African-American flyer who ran an airport with her husband in Oak Lawn.

In telling the stories of 22 Purdue astronauts, "Wings of Their Dreams" covers the space program from the beginning of NASA to the present day and is among the most extensive collections of narratives about people who have flown in space.

"One of my goals was to take people into an Apollo capsule sitting on top of a huge Saturn rocket and let them experience what it felt like to launch for the moon," Norberg says. "I want people to know how the shuttle shakes and rattles as it launches from the Kennedy Space Center and what that first moment of sudden weightlessness feels like eight minutes later. I want people to understand the emotions of astronauts like Mark Brown, who talks about writing letters to his wife and children to be delivered in the event his shuttle does not return. I want people to know not only what it looks like, but also what it feels like to see the Earth from a distance. Personally, descriptions by Eugene Cernan from the moon and David Wolf from a walk in space thrill me every time I read them."

Cernan says in the book: "I was witness to a small part of (God's) creation. One of the first things you see when you're out of the spacecraft is the Earth and all its beauty and splendor, the blues of the ocean and the whites of the snow and clouds. It's three-dimensional out there in all that blackness. You could put your hand around the Earth and almost focus on the endlessness of time, the endlessness of infinity. Can I show it to you? No. Can I draw you a picture of it? No. But I can tell you it exists because I saw it with my own eyes."

Wolf says: "When it's dark (during a spacewalk) all you see is the spacecraft. You have headlamps. It's just you and the light and the spacecraft floating in nothing. But when the day breaks, it's a brilliant fiery line that starts moving underneath you. And then Earth's aura lights up, very suddenly, and you realize (you are not alone), that you have this gorgeous planet down there."

Norberg did not set out to write the complete history of Purdue and aviation.

"That would be a work longer than the Encyclopedia Britannica," he says. "Purdue's involvement is just enormous. I focused on stories of people who flew, the pioneers in getting off the ground and in reaching outer space."

Among Norberg's favorite memories during this project is going through J. Clifford Turpin 's scrapbook with one of his grandson's in Cape Cod, Mass. Turpin, of Dayton, Ohio, was a young engineer fresh out of Purdue University who went to work with Orville and Wilbur Wright, helping the brothers improve the engine that powered their fragile flying machine and becoming part of an exhibition team.

"He knew his granddad did something special," Norberg said. "But I don't think he realized how special he was until we went through that scrapbook together. It is an amazing collection of photos and newspaper clippings that tell the story of aviation in the days when people were discovering the laws of flight every time they left the ground. Cliff Turpin played an amazing role in the history of flight. Orville Wright taught him to fly. Turpin, in turn, taught "Hap" Arnold to fly. And Gen. Arnold is considered the 'father' of our modern Air Force. I sat in the Library of Congress and read original correspondence between Turpin and Orville Wright.

"On several occasions during this project I visited the Smithsonian Institution Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to research. I was really impressed at how you can go past nearly every exhibit there and find some connection to Purdue."

In addition to the early pioneers and barnstormers, "Wings of Their Dreams" tells the story of Iven Kincheloe, who flew to the edge of space before being killed in a flight accident.

It tells the story of George Welch, one of the heroes of Pearl Harbor, whose exploits have been featured in movies such as "Tora, Tora, Tora" and "Pearl Harbor." It tells the story of Neil Armstrong and his love for Purdue.

"Hundreds of years from now people will continue to be fascinated by Neil Armstrong," Norberg says. "He is one of those great figures from human history, the explorers like Columbus and Magellan who expanded our horizons and possibilities. Neil will tell you he had lots of help in his accomplishments. And he did. None of us ever succeed alone.

"But on one point, everyone agrees: If you had to pick the best man to be the first to command a moon landing and walk on the lunar surface, you couldn't pick a better person than Neil Armstrong. He not only did a tremendous job landing that lunar module on the moon, he also has done a spectacular job assuming the lifelong responsibility of being the first man to walk on the moon. That is a big responsibility with impacts that continue today. We are very proud of his relationship with Purdue"

Armstrong graduated from Purdue in 1955.

This year is the 100th anniversary of flight. Dec. 17 will mark the official day when the Wright brothers first got off the ground in Kitty Hawk.

"I don't think the Wright brothers completely understood it, but when they lifted off the ground that December day in 1903, the world changed, completely and forever."

In fact, Norberg says, for thousands of years people all around the world have shared similar dreams: Humankind has always wanted to fly; people have always longed to touch the moon. The first three people to accomplish these feats were all born within a small, rural triangle connecting Millville, Ind., and Dayton and Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Norberg believes there also is a message for us today in studying the amazing accomplishments in flight that have brought us to the dawn of the 21st century,

"In a larger sense, I think we have to ask ourselves what we can learn from all of this today," he says. "I believe there is a great deal we can learn. We can accomplish great things. We can reach untold heights. Like the people from our history, we just need to work very hard – and never be afraid to fly on the wings of our dreams."

John Norberg is a senior writer for Purdue. He came to the university after almost 30 years as a reporter, and he still writes a weekly column for Journal and Courier in Lafayette, Ind. "Wings of Their Dream" is his fourth book about Purdue. The three previous books are "Force for Change: The Class of 1950," "Hail Purdue" and "Three Tigers and Purdue: Stories of Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan and an American University."

Source: John Norberg, (765) 494-2073,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;


Note to Journalists: Advance copies of "Wings of Their Dreams: Purdue In Flight" are available by contacting Matt Holsapple at (765) 494-2073,


Purdue graduates Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, the first and last person to walk on the moon, pose during their time working with NASA. They are among the 22 Purdue alumni chosen for the space program, helping the university earn the nickname "the cradle of astronauts." (Purdue University file photo)

A publication-quality photograph is available at

This photo is from a 1911 public flight demonstration on the Purdue University campus. From the early days of aviation, Purdue researchers and alumni were involved in advancing the young science. (Purdue University file photo)

A publication-quality photograph is available at

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