Flight's Centennial:Day soggy but spirited

By IRENE MONA KLOTZ, United Press International  |  Dec. 17, 2003 at 5:34 PM
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KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C., Dec. 17 (UPI) -- The sandy hills where Orville and Wilbur Wright first demonstrated that a machine could fly was soaked through with steady rains Wednesday, 100 years to the day that the brothers' canvas, wood and wire contraption took wing.

"Rain will never dampen our spirits," President George W. Bush told the 36,000-member crowd gathered at the Wright Brothers National Memorial for the country's official Centennial of Flight celebration.

Bush recounted the feat of the Wright brothers, noting how they defied the common notion in their time of the impossibility of human flight. "By our skill and daring America has excelled in every area of aviation and space travel ... and with our skill and daring we will continue to lead the world in flight."

Actor John Travolta, an aviation enthusiast who served as master of ceremonies, opened the door for Bush to announce a new national initiative for the space program, which remains mired in the aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia accident. But the president declined to comment on the speculation he plans to announce a program to return the United States to the moon.

"Not only do I vote for that idea, but I volunteer to go on the first mission," Travolta said.

Bush said the day belongs to the memory of the Wright brothers, but acknowledged Travolta's offer. "We shall call him 'Moon Man' from now on."

The highlight of the five-day commemoration was to be a recreation of Orville Wright's historic 12-second flight over the dunes at Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright brothers moved after an initial test season at nearby Kitty Hawk. The Experimental Aircraft Association, which spent four years building a historically accurate replica of the Wright Flyer, wanted to take off at 10:35 a.m., the exact time the Wright brothers first successful flew their plane 100 years ago.

They settled for an attempt about two hours later, carefully rolling the 600-pound craft out of its hangar and onto a rail laid upon the muddy field. Engines cranking and propellers spinning, pilot Kevin Kochersberger slowly taxied the craft into the wind, delighting the spectators who had stuck out the rain waiting to see the aircraft fly.

A few seconds later, the wind died down, however, falling below the 10-knot speed needed to lift the ship into the sky. The replica of the Wright Flyer slid down its takeoff rail, dipped its wing into a puddle, and came to a stop. Kochersberger, who lay prone in the middle of the craft, just as the Wright brothers did on their four flights on Dec. 17, 1903.

A final attempt at 3:30 ended shortly after engine start, with winds again too gentle to fly.

"It would have been nice to fly today," Kochersberger said after the second attempt. "But I do not feel that we have failed. We have flown this plane successfully ... but we cannot control the weather. This has been a research program and we have created an awareness of the Wright brothers that was not here before."

The airplane will be placed on permanent exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborne, Mich.

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