Yearlong celebration planned to mark first powered flight

KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. -- It took only 12 seconds for the Wright brothers to change the world. What hasn't changed much in the 99 years since is the site where they flew the first airplane.

Planners and fund raisers in North Carolina hope to change that with a yearlong "centennial of flight" celebration that features a makeover of the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

Over the coming year, North Carolina plans displays and events statewide and at the park, where an official kickoff is scheduled for Tuesday, the 99th anniversary of the 1903 flight at nearby Kitty Hawk.

"North Carolina is the place to be in 2003 if you're interested in flight," state Secretary of Cultural Resources Lisbeth Evans said. "It'll be a huge celebration."

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the military, airplane manufacturers and others will set up exhibits in one end of a 20,000-square-foot, $1.8 million semi-permanent pavilion at the site early next year. A runway will feed into the other end, allowing pilots to bring in small planes for discussions and exhibits.

The finale will be a six-day celebration that will end with the attempted flight of a $1.2 million reproduction of the Wright Flyer airplane. A matching plane to be flown the next day will be donated to the site.

Orville and Wilbur Wright, from Dayton, Ohio, first came to the Outer Banks in the fall of 1900, drawn by their stiff winds, privacy and open spaces as promising conditions to attempt powered, manned flights.

They succeeded on Dec. 17, 1903, when Orville piloted the Wright Flyer 120 feet and aloft for 12 seconds along the dunes of Kitty Hawk. It was the first of four short flights that day.

Site largely unchanged

The site the Wrights left behind is largely unchanged -- still anchored by a marker left in Kill Devil Hills on the 1928 anniversary, a larger monument with a cornerstone laid that same day, and a 1960 visitors center.

Plans for the centennial haven't always run smoothly. Part of the problem may have been that, early on, too many groups had a hand in the plans while no one coordinated their work, a job Evans has taken over in the past year.

The public First Flight Centennial Commission was created by the state in 1994 to plan the event. A year later, the commission spawned a foundation to raise private money, but didn't have authority to oversee the group. The National Park Service, which owns the Wright memorial, controls what happens at the site and answered to neither group.

Evans and others say the various groups have mended broken ties in time for the centennial.

The results of that work won't be as grand as early commission members envisioned. Their plans had included anchoring an aircraft carrier off the Outer Banks to accept visiting dignitaries and launching a space module to Mars on Dec. 17, 2003. They also wanted wide-ranging aircraft displays and a new visitors center to replace the chronically leaky center.

The smaller celebration was shaped by the realities of the financial landscape and the physical limits of the barrier island.

The slender Outer Banks lack an airport to accommodate modern aircraft. Flights to the Outer Banks are restricted because of the nearby Norfolk (Va.) International Airport, and military training from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro and Marine Corps air stations near Jacksonville and Havelock.

And while the population of the once-isolated Outer Banks has grown in the past 100 years -- to about 9,000 year-round residents in the vicinity of the monument -- it still doesn't have the infrastructure to accommodate several hundred thousand visitors at a time.

Instead, Fayetteville, home to the Army's famed 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, will most likely have the largest flight-related event in the state with its 11-day festival in May.

Planners for the Wright commemorations hoped to raise $17 million to replace the center and spent $250,000 for architectural plans before the park service won National Historic Landmark status for the building. That means it can't be destroyed and must be renovated to its original state.

For now, the group has turned its focus to raising money for the pavilion and other costs related to the centennial. Park service leaders also are trying to line up $7 million in federal money.

Evans said the Wright brothers will get the major celebration they deserve in North Carolina, a state that treats them as almost natives, rather than a pair of ambitious outsiders.

"They couldn't fly in Ohio," Evans said. "North Carolina is a place conducive to innovation. It was conducive to flight and the people who were down there helped them get it done."


On the Net

First Flight Centennial Commission:

Wright Brothers National Memorial: