Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Q&A with Mike Downs



Mike Downs is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Flying Man: Otto Lilienthal, the World's First Pilot. His many other books include The Noisy Airplane Ride. He is also a pilot, and he lives in Florida.


Q: What inspired you to write this picture book biography of Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896)?


A: That’s a great question! I can’t think of a particular event that triggered the thought, but one day I began to wonder – was there any person in the world who flew before the Wright Brothers? If I were to ask the question “Who was the world’s first pilot?” 99 percent of people would answer “The Wright Brothers.” But was this true?


Don’t get me wrong, the Wright Brothers are the real deal! They catapulted aviation into the future. They were the first to fly (and consistently fly again) in powered aircraft.


But as a glider and hang glider pilot, I wondered if someone had come before them. Not just a person who had gotten into the air once or twice, but someone who had flown over and over again, learning to control and consistently fly an airplane without an engine. In essence, who was the world’s first pilot.


Q: The School Library Journal review of the book says, “Readers will marvel at Lilienthal’s perseverance of his dream over the span of his life and the research he did into the flight of birds as it related to his designs…. [and] will enjoy learning about a not very well-known designer and inventor of flying machines, making this book a missing link in collections about aviation and flight.” What do you think of that description, and why isn't more known about Lilienthal?


A: I’m humbled and thrilled that the reviewer at the School Library Journal appreciated the underlying theme I was striving for in my book – is there a world’s first pilot who has gone mostly unnoticed in the annals of aviation. The answer turned out to be a resounding YES! I could not have asked for a more succinct observation than their comment, “a missing link in collections about aviation,” exactly what I was striving for.


They also noted the crux of Lilienthal’s achievement, the fact that it took him an entire lifetime of study, observation, and research to accomplish his amazing feat.


Q: What do you think David Hohn's illustrations add to the story?


A: All I can say is WOW! I was absolutely overwhelmed when I saw the amazing art that David had created for the book. His insight into the feeling I was trying to capture for the book was spot on. His incredible combination of illustrating technical aspects of Lillienthal’s journey, while also catching the whimsy and joy that Otto experienced, is nothing short of amazing. You can feel the vibrancy of the story by the flowing wind that has a life of its own throughout the story.


David brought the words I wrote to life.


I have to thank my editor, Susan Dobinick, and the art team at Astra for their vision of the book, and how they made it happen.


Q: In the book's afterword, you note, “The Wright Brothers cited Otto Lilienthal as their greatest inspiration.” What do you see as the relationship between Lilienthal's work and that of the Wright Brothers?


A: One of the surprising things I discovered in my research was that the Wright Brothers had been casually following the achievements of Lilienthal. It was his death in 1896 that was the catalyst for them to start on their own journey.


Even then, as they embarked on their quest to invent the powered airplane, they followed the same proven method that Lilienthal had so successfully used – they decided to learn to fly in gliders first before attempting to put on an engine. The Wright Brothers had more than 1,000 glider flights before they attempted to fly with an engine. They also used Lilienthal’s method of carefully testing wing shapes and designs before trying them in person.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I love writing about aviation history, so my next project, nearly completed, is Jackie Cochran, the Fastest Woman on Earth.


If you haven’t heard of her, Jackie Cochran was an early aviation legend. She was the first woman in the world to break Mach 1 (the sound barrier) AND 11 years later (at the age of 58), to set a world speed record above Mach 2. She was the head of the WASPs in WWII, and learned to fly jets from Chuck Yeager. Even more amazing, Jackie managed to do this at a time when women had to desperately fight for their basic rights!


When Jackie died, in 1980, she held more speed and altitude records than ANY other pilot in history.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that if you have a passion, pursue it! I struggled over a year to research and write this book. I had to find original reference material, and then a translator because most of it was in German! But I was so passionate about wanting to tell this story that I finally made it happen.


I think about how small of an achievement this was compared to Lilienthal, who spent his entire life working toward a goal that eventually helped change the world!


So for those of us struggling to make something happen, I feel a story like this shows that with enough work and persistence we can all succeed in our own lives.


Thank you so much for taking the time to highlight The Flying Man, which became a passion for me!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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