KITTY HAWK, N.C. -- Almost 100 years after the Wright brothers' first flight, there is drama down here at the memorial where the Ohio bicycle entrepreneurs made history.
For five days in the middle of December, the Wright Brothers National Memorial will be celebrating the brothers' historic flight. The ceremonies begin on Saturday, Dec. 13. By Dec. 15, some of the most famous names in aviation will be arriving, among them Chuck Yeager, the fabled test pilot who along with other achievements was the first to fly faster than the speed of sound, and Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, who on July 20, 1969, became the first human to walk on the moon.
Then, on Dec. 17, this windswept field will be crowded with dignitaries and ordinary Americans to commemorate the centennial of the "12 seconds that changed the world." But there is another drama taking place right now.
Before I mention today's drama, consider Orville and Wilbur Wright's exploits. Back in Dayton, they were successful businessmen. Wilbur, the older brother, was bookish and intense. Orville was more outgoing and glad-handing. Both disturbed the town's settled folk with talk of putting one of their contraptions into the air and actually flying from one point to another.
There were many in 19th century Dayton who thought such talk was weird -- some thought it blasphemous. Yet the brothers kept tinkering in their shop and disappearing to North Carolina's Outer Banks, where they would take advantage of the ceaseless winds to develop wings, propellers and an engine. The last two contrivances would complete their invention of what we today call the airplane. The brothers' propeller and engine were uniquely their own creations, manifestations of scientific and engineering skills that set them apart.
By 1903, and after many depressing setbacks, they thought they had a crack at making the first manned heavier-than-air flight. Dressed in coats and ties on a chilly week in December, they brought their heavier-than-air contraption to this field. They attached their 12 horsepower, 180-pound engine to a 40-foot, 605-pound "Flyer" that looked like what we today might call a biplane. Winning a coin toss over brother Orville, Wilbur on Dec. 14 made the first attempt to ride the Flyer into the sky. As it left its launching rail, Wilbur miscalculated his steering device and, after a brief ascent, hit the sand.