U.S. aviation pioneers gathered in Washington Tuesday to commemorate a century of powered flight. The observations continue throughout the year, ending on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight next year.
It began 99 years ago, December 17, 1903, when, for 12 seconds, Orville and Wilbur Wright conducted the first successful motorized flight over hilly Atlantic coastal terrain in North Carolina.
In tribute to that world-changing event, a commission established by the U.S. Congress to observe the centennial of flight initiated a yearlong commemoration at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
"It's with great pleasure that I say let the celebration begin," said Air and Space Museum Director Jack Dailey, the chairman of the Centennial of Flight Commission. "Orville and Wilbur Wright's first flight was born of a dream and it was inspired by the desire to experience a freedom human had never known before."
The ceremonies also recognized other heroes of flight. Attending were noted aviation pioneers including Neil Armstrong, the first human on the moon; John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth; and a representative of the first black U.S. military pilots in World War II.
Also present were descendants of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, whose flights made aviation history. Mr. Lindbergh made the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 and Ms. Earhart set several aeronautical records before disappearing during a flight over the Pacific Ocean in 1937.
All were recognized by Marion Blakey, the head of the U.S. government agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, that regulates the airline industry.
"We celebrate the pioneers, the visionaries, and, yes, the adventurers who dreamed about the possibility, but who made it a reality," she said. "For the next year, we are going to honor the accomplishments of so many men and women who were and still are key members of the aviation community, from dreamer to scientist, from aviator to astronaut."
At the site of the original Wright Brothers flight, thousands of spectators watched as 99 aircraft crisscrossed the sky. Some disgorged parachutists who floated down close to the granite marker where the first flight ended.
At the same time, a $1-million visitors' center was dedicated at Dayton, Ohio, where the Wright Brothers developed their early aircraft before flight testing them in North Carolina.
In Washington, Neil Armstrong told a CBS television interviewer that the brothers would be surprised at the enormous progress aviation has made in the past century. "They actually thought that the airplane might be useful for military reconnaissance and perhaps for sport flying, but they could not possibly have imagined the applications of carrying passengers across oceans and using airplanes for military purposes and crop dusting," he explained. "They never would have guessed that."
The 12-month observance of aviation's first century ends in one year with a six-day celebration featuring an attempted flight by a replica of the Wright airplane.