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Air Show Celebrates Wright Brothers' First Flight - 2003-08-03

This year marks the 100th anniversary of an event that succeeded in fulfilling one of mankind's oldest desires. It was December 17, 1903, and the Wright brothers managed a modest 12 second airplane flight that would forever change the world we live in. This year at air shows around the globe, including in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, home of the world's largest fly-in and airshow, people are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first flight. From Oshkosh, Jason Paur reports on the celebration of the first flight and what some aviation experts think may come in the next 100 years.

Every summer, air shows capture the imagination of millions of people as they gaze skyward to see something that just one hundred years ago was only a dream.

Since Orville and Wilbur Wright lifted off the ground in their 12-second journey in 1903, humans have flown across the oceans, around the world and to the moon. But it all started with an airplane few people even today would think could fly.

For the past decade, a project called the Wright Experience has been preparing for the 100th anniversary of manned flight. And at the airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, they have brought their pride and joy, an exact replica of the original 1903 Wright airplane.

"We call it a reproduction because we were trying to build it exactly the way they did. We're testing all the components of the Wrights, just to figure out how this airplane flew," says Ken Hyde, a retired airline pilot and president of the Wright Experience, a private group of aviation enthusiasts trying to recreate the magic of the Wright brothers' first flight.

"There's no doubt in my mind that they would recognize it as an airplane of their own and one they'd be able to fly," he says.

On display in a huge tent just a few meters away from supersonic fighter jets and jumbo transport planes, the 1903 reproduction looks delicate and unorthodox by today's aircraft standards. The Wright Experience wanted to reconstruct the aircraft in every detail. They even had to work with fabric companies to recreate the original material used on the wings right down to the number of threads per square meter. The original fabric hasn't been produced since the 1920s.

But perhaps the trickiest part of the Wright Experience has been in trying to learn how to fly the 100 year old design. Soon after the airplane was tested in modern wind tunnels it was discovered it is extremely unstable in the air. The Wright Experience doesn't want to crash and damage the reproduction that has taken thousands of hours to produce. So Mr. Hyde says they're once again copying what the Wright brothers did, and doing their training with a glider to learn some of the basics.

"They built the 1902 glider which became quite successful, they put almost 1,400 glides on that glider, practicing," explains Mr. Hyde. "And in 1903, the first thing they did was dust off that old glider and go for some of the longest flights they ever had."

The Wright brothers proved 100 years ago that it's possible to build your own aircraft and with practice and persistence, fly with the birds. But for the more than 700,000 people at the Oshkosh Airshow, this is nothing new. The airshow is put on each year by the Experimental Aviation Association, an organization of pilots and aviation enthusiasts who enjoy building their own small airplanes as much as they do flying them. Many of them are developing the future of aviation.

Lance Niebauer, the president of Lancair, a company that is producing cutting edge personal airplanes for the next century of flight, Niebauer started like the Wright brothers. He built a plane of his own design 20 years ago, and today his airplanes are recognized as some of the most innovative in the world. He has hopes that in the next hundred years more and more people will choose to fly their own airplanes, though he admits the airplane probably won't be replacing the car.

"It's still not going to be an airplane in every garage," says Mr. Niebauer. "That's just not going to happen, but I do see a significant growth for general aviation as a transportation tool. And as the smaller cities that no longer have a regional airline service because they've all been cutting back, the use of these small planes for business trips, personal trips, we're going to see that grow and grow."

Of course, aviation isn't just about the Wright brothers flying a hundred meters or private pilots flying from one city to the next. Most people who have flown in an airplane flew in a giant airliner that can fly from one country to the next or even one continent to the other. Passenger jets have made the world a much smaller place than it was 100 years ago. Instead of taking months or years to sail around the world on the oceans, you can now fly around the world in a day or two.

And Gene Cernan thinks in the future the same trip may take much less time. Mr. Cernan is a bit of an expert in long distance flying, as the last person to stand on the moon the former astronaut made the longest flight ever. He believes the next major step in aviation is flying much faster than even the supersonic Concorde.

"We as human beings have dipped our finger into the honey jar and it's not good enough to just fly around the world. We've got to be able to do it now in the course of less than an hour," says Mr. Cernan. "The Concorde wasn't that big or comfortable of an airplane but people got on it because you could go from one continent to another in less than 3 hours. And I think that's what's going to happen."

Nobody is sure what the next 100 years of aviation will look like. Mr. Cernan said he wouldn't have guessed that he was to be the last person on the moon. And the Wright brothers probably could not have dreamed that their brief first flights would one day lead to people flying to the moon.

Whether the future includes around the world flights in less than an hour, or people flying themselves place to place, aviation will continue to allow people to dream about breaking the bonds of earth just as the Wright brothers did nearly 100 years ago.

The EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2003 is held July 29-August 4 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.