The week-long celebration of the Wright Brothers' historic first flight culminates in Kitty Hawk Wednesday with a reenactment of the event. The 40,000 spectators include noted names in aviation and President Bush.
Film star John Travolta - himself an accomplished pilot - will be the master of ceremonies for Wednesday's events here at the birthplace of aviation. An exact replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer will attempt to recreate Orville Wright's first flight. That trip was made on December 17, 1903, at 10:35 a.m. A second attempt to recreate the 59-second flight of Wilbur Wright will take place in the mid-afternoon. Kevin Kochersberger, who is scheduled to fly the Wright Flyer, says that people should remember that the aircraft has limited capabilities.
"You have to remember that this was, for the Wright Brothers, a 'proof of concept' airplane," explained Mr. Kochersberger. And it did everything they wanted it to do, which was to prove controlled, powered flight. it doesn't sound like a long distance, but believe me, seeing this airplane fly 120 feet [37 meters] is quite an event."
Mr. Kochersberger, who has already flown the Wright replica in test sessions, says the experience is an emotional one.
"For me, it was a very emotional experience, and I get choked up thinking about it, talking about it," he said. "But being here, at the site, and the view that you have looking down the rail and the acceleration as the airplane starts rolling down, you just have visions of history going past you as you roll down and accelerate."
The builder of the 1903 Wright Flyer replica is Ken Hyde. The retired airline pilot has spent more than $1 million in corporate grant money building what historians say is the most accurate replica of the aircraft. Yet Mr. Hyde says that, with all the fanfare surrounding Wednesday's reenactment of the first powered flight, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the Wright Flyer is a fragile and temperamental machine. He says that markers in the ground that outline the distances traveled by the Wright Brothers in their plane of a century ago are testimony to the difficulty even Orville and Wilbur had piloting their invention.
"People do have the conception that this airplane will take off and go to Elizabeth City [North Carolina] and back and that's not true," said Mr. Hyde. "If you walk the walk out here of the stones, it is really humbling to see how short that first flight was, and how they progressed [in] all four flights. we have no intention of flying beyond those distances."
Also humbled by the events unfolding this week at Kitty Hawk is Wes Johnson of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Standing on the high dune from which the Wright's made their first glider experiments, Mr. Johnson reflects on this celebration of the Wright Brothers' first flight.
"I think about [how] we've come a long way in 100 years," mused Mr. Johnson. "A hundred years is a short period of time to go from two guys who had a dream to fly a flyer, to a jet that can climb over 30,000 feet [9,100 meters] in just a matter of seconds. It's incredible."
Among the many dignitaries and aviation pioneers who have come to Kitty Hawk this week is former Senator John Glenn, the first American astronaut to circle the Earth. He says that perhaps the lesson of the Wright Brothers is that innovation is embedded in nature, and that the next advances in aviation lie there.
"I think that maybe we need to follow the Wright Brothers, and go back and look at the birds," suggested Mr. Glenn. "Did you ever watch a hummingbird fly? We don't know the first thing about flying compared to a hummingbird - up, down, darting this way and that way, with absolutely perfect control of the air. Or go out here and watch a pelican ride a wave. It can go half a mile, without ever [moving] its wings. It is down there in 'ground effect,' riding along with efficiencies that we haven't even begun to grasp yet."
Among the other notable aviators scheduled to attend the reenactment of the Wright Brothers historic first flight are Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Mr. Yeager accomplished the feat in the Bell X-1 experimental rocket-powered aircraft in 1948, at a time when Orville Wright was still alive to see it.