WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Ninety-nine years to the day the Wright brothers first flew a powered aircraft, U.S. air and space pioneers gathered in Washington Tuesday to launch a year-long commemoration of that historic event.
At the National Air and Space Museum, the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission kicked-off the celebrations by gathering together aviation pioneers, their families and astronauts. Actor John Travolta introduced the event, saying the celebration of the Wrights' achievement would inspire 21st century explorers and adventurers.
"It can all be attributed to passion," said Travolta, who is a licensed pilot. "Look to this year of the Centennial of Flight to inspire us, for our passions are born from our dreams," he added.
The centennial series of events will span the country and include seminars, symposiums -- and flights of a reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer that first flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903, ushering in the age of powered flight.
Michael P. Jackson, deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation; Marion Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration; Sean O'Keefe, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; and J.R. "Jack" Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum, formally announced the opening of the centennial year.
Among those present just feet from the same plane that flew 99 years earlier were Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969; former Ohio Senator John H. Glenn Jr., who piloted the Friendship 7 Mercury space capsule to become America's first man in orbit on Feb. 20, 1962; Dr. Shannon Lucid, NASA astronaut and holder of the longest time in space for a woman; Amy Kleppner, niece of legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart; Col. Charles McGee, member of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II; Gen. David Lee "Tex" Hill, World War II fighter ace; Edsel B. Ford, great-grandson of Henry Ford; and Amanda Wright Lane, great grand-niece of Orville and Wilbur Wright.
In reviewing the events of that historic day in 1903, Lane told United Press International that the flight almost never happened.
"We could have made this celebration three days ago, on Dec. 14," said Lane. That, according to Lane, was when the Wrights made their first try at powered flight of their glider. "But that attempt on the 14th failed -- really damaged the plane, badly. It took them 24-36 hours to fix it up to try again, so Dec. 17 was the day."
Lane added that had her great uncles not been successful on their second try on Dec. 17, history might well have been different.
"They were about ready to pack it up and head home to Ohio for Christmas," she said. The weather on the coast of North Carolina was getting worse by the hour, with increasingly strong winds. Lane said that the Wrights decided to make one last attempt on the morning of Dec. 17.
"It was a success," she said. The craft flew 120 feet in 12 seconds, lifting into the wind at 10:35 a.m., becoming the first flight of a heavier-than-air machine powered by an engine. After that success, the brothers brought the plane into the air for three more times that day. But after the final flight, the winds "picked up their plane and badly damaged it, tossed it around a bit," Lane said. "My uncles both felt that this was a sign -- that they should pack it up and head home for the winter."
Lane said the Wrights sent a telegram home advising of their flights and saying they would be home for Christmas. The heavily damaged craft was packed up for transit home. "It was in bits and pieces," she said.
The crated flyer sat at the family home in Dayton for years. The Wright brothers decided it was damaged beyond repair. The historic craft that opened the dawn of flight would never fly again.
The plane itself had an interesting history, Lane explained. It barely survived a 1913 flood. In 1928, it was shipped to England for display in a museum.
"When the Smithsonian Institute finally recognized the Wrights' accomplishment, my uncles brought it back here (to Washington) in 1948," she said. Lane called the role of the flyer "the beginning of the last 99 years."
If her famous relatives were alive today, Lane said she thinks they would have approved of the way aviation and space flight have evolved. "They were of such great intellect, I'm not sure they would be surprised about how far it's come," she said.
Eric Lindbergh, grandson of Charles Lindbergh, said the only disappointment his famous uncle would have expressed would have been about the slow development of space exploration for the common man.
The span between the Wright brothers first flight and the Apollo 11 moon landing was only 66 years -- well within a human lifetime. Yet it has been 30 years since the last mission, Apollo 17, departed the moon on Dec. 14, 1972.
Lindbergh, who flew the first trans-Atlantic flight alone in May 1927, would have expected passenger-carrying spaceships to be commonplace today. "He would have wanted to see ordinary people flying in space routinely by now," Lindbergh said.
Lane said her uncles would not have expected to be feted in this centennial year that is just beginning.
"They would have wanted to avoid all of the publicity, but they would have been thrilled by the recognition and honors," she said.
(Note: a list of the events planned for the Centennial of Flight Year's celebrations can be found at centennialofflight.gov)