Learning to fly again

Posted: Nov 27, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

After repairs, the brothers were ready again on Dec. 17. This time, it was Orville's turn. At 10:35 in the morning, he accelerated the Flyer along the rail, with his brother running alongside steadying the wings. This time, the bird took off, and man's first flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. Taking turns, Wilbur and Orville made three more flights that day, ending with Wilbur's record-setting 59 seconds aloft, covering 852 feet.

It all sounds quite easy, but everything they did that day and in all the days leading up to the historic flight was arduous and chancy. After their last flight, a gust of wind caught the parked machine, tipped it over and smashed it beyond repair. The brothers returned to Dayton.

Throughout the next two years, they refined their airplane, and by 1905 they could fly in circles for nearly 40 minutes. When they offered their contraption to the United States Army, they were snubbed. Washington doubted their claims. For the next three years, they gave up flying, as government aviators in Washington and Paris tried to duplicate their achievement. All failed badly (by 1906, none had remained above ground for more than a few seconds), and doubts about the Wright brothers' claims spread.

Not until 1908 did they sign agreements with our government and the French to assist those governments' faltering flying programs. Then, joining with the Army and the French, the Wrights proved their superiority. Soon Wilbur, in a more advanced plane, could remain aloft for 2 hours, reaching an altitude of 360 feet. No one in the Army or in France had matched them. Now they had proved their genius.

Here in Kitty Hawk, their genius has been proved again. On Nov. 20, modern Americans tried to fly a replica of the Wright brothers' plane in preparation for the centennial on Dec. 17. It flew 119 feet, one foot short of the brothers' first flight, and crashed badly. No one was hurt, but the plane is a mess. Now with great drama, a crew of 21st century technicians is trying to get the plane back together for the take-off at 10:35, 100 years after the first flight. They hope they can repair their modern-day airplane so it can be flown on the day of the great celebration.

Maybe they can, but they have another problem. What if our modern engineers and aviators fail to fly it as far as Orville flew his? Yeager broke the sound barrier. Armstrong walked on the moon. But here at Kitty Hawk, it is too early to say that we moderns can match those bicycle entrepreneurs from Dayton, Ohio.