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Celebrations Mark 100th Anniversary of Wright Brothers' First Flight - 2003-12-16

Wednesday, December 17, is the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first free and controlled flight of a heavier-than-air machine. And, this week, thousands of people have traveled to Kitty Hawk to attend the First Flight Centennial Celebration at the site of the Wright Brothers' historic achievement in the eastern U.S. state of North Carolina.

The celebration culminates with a re-enactment of the Wright Brothers' flights of 1903, Wednesday. The site in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina is a place that is hallowed ground for generations of aviators.

At Kitty Hawk's Kill Devil Hills, the typically flat, beach landscape is punctuated by the Wright Brothers Monument, a masonry memorial pylon that sits high on the dune from which Orville and Wilbur Wright conducted more than 1,000 glider flights, before their first powered flight.

It was on December 17, 1903 - with Orville at the controls - that the Wright Flyer first took to the air. It stayed aloft for 12 seconds, and traveled 37 meters. Later that day, the aircraft made its more famous 59-second flight, covering 260 meters.

As National Park Service Historian Darrell Collins says, the ultimate success of the Wright Brothers powered flight hinged on their ability to control the aircraft, which they learned from years of experiments with gliders.

"They worked on trying to solve that problem of control from 1899 until 1902," he said. "And they solved that problem in the year of 1902 in a glider that they flew off the sand dunes at this site in almost a six-week period a thousand times."

The Wright brothers chose Kitty Hawk, a small fishing village on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, because it fit their need for a place with steady wind for lift, soft sand for landings and few obstacles. It was there that Mr. Collins says that the Wright Brothers worked together on the problems of flight that had eluded so many before them.

"From the very beginning, the Wright Brothers realized that this problem was just too great for one mind to solve," he said. "So it was the combination of the two brothers' minds, complementing each other's weaknesses, that made flight a reality."

Amanda Wright Lane is a descendant of the Wright Brothers. She says her great grand uncles, Wilbur and Orville, were well aware of the dangers of their experiments, and that other daring innovators had lost their lives trying to fly.

"They were certainly bright enough to know that they had to be very careful," she said. "In fact, that was the only negative that ever came back to them from family members was, their father wrote them a letter once and said, 'Sons, be careful.' He didn't ever say, 'You're crazy,' He didn't ever say 'Don't try this.' He said, 'You need to be careful.' And there is a letter from Will [Wilbur] back to him that said, 'Father, we will use the utmost precaution. We want to do this safely because, if we don't, we'll only have one chance at it.'"

Wilbur and Orville Wright got that chance, of course, and made the most of it. Of his first flight, Orville Wright later wrote that it was, "the first time in history that a piloted machine rose into the air under its own power, moved forward in the air without losing speed, and finally landed at a point as high as that from which it took off."