Twelve Seconds that Changed the World

Aviation enthusiasts celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first successful powered flight.

By Gary DiNunno, Editor-in-Chief
Air Line Pilot, February 2004, p.14

The wind was constant—whipping up whitecaps in Albemarle Sound to the west of the sand dunes—and a reminder why the Wright Brothers came to Kill Devil Hills, N.C., 100 years ago. But unlike that December in 1903, when the two aviation pioneers tested their aircraft in secret on the isolated, wind-swept dunes, in 2003 thousands of aviation enthusiasts and dignitaries, and local and federal government officials, including President George W. Bush, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, and actor John Travolta, who served as master of ceremonies, gathered on Dec. 17, 2003, at the same site to pay homage to "the bishop’s boys" and to the progress of aviation they inspired.

The crowd had wandered among the aviation exhibits and static aircraft displays since December 12. ALPA members and their families and airline pilots from other countries who made the pilgrimage greeted the Association’s vice-president–finance/treasurer, Capt. Chris Beebe, and vice-president–administration/secretary, Capt. Paul Rice, both of whom attended as ALPA representatives to the first flight reenactment.

Many visitors walked along the flightpaths of the historic 1903 flights—four successful flights in all. Stone markers indicate the length of each flight. Among the people present were descendants of the Wright family and of the Coast Guard lifesavers who witnessed the historic flight—one of the lifesavers has been credited with taking the now-famous photograph as the original Flyer left the ground.

Flybys of military and civilian aircraft, parasailing demonstrations, aerobatic and formation flying demonstrations, and live entertainment dazzled the crowds for several days leading up to the main event on December 17—the reenactment of the Wright Brothers’ 12-second first flight of 120 feet with an exact reproduction of the original 1903 flyer (see, "Countdown to Kitty Hawk," May 2003).

President Bush, on the morning of December 17, noted that the poor weather would fail to dampen the spirits of the enthusiastic aviators present. He observed that astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and John Glenn were in the audience. Famed test pilot Chuck Yeager was also present.

President Bush celebrated the "discipline, persistence, optimism, and imagination" of the Wright Brothers in achieving their aviation milestone.

The first flight attempt was to occur at 10:35 a.m., the time of the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight.

But when that moment arrived, the audience was forced to hide under ponchos and rain gear or to duck into exhibitors’ tents as rain pelted the park grounds hard enough to substantially reduce visibility.

The 1903 Flyer reproduction, just barely a good-weather aircraft, remained in the "Countdown to Kitty Hawk" tent, which the Experimental Aircraft Association was sponsoring.

At approximately 12:30 p.m., the rains abated, and the Flyer was rolled out to its launch track. The ground crew carefully lowered the airplane onto the track and held the wings so they would not dip into the pools of water and mud that covered the field. Crewmembers walked around the airplane, inspecting the wings and the track.

The selected pilot, Dr. Kevin Kochersberger, from Rochester Institute of Technology, took his place, prone next to the engine, and began to test the flight controls. When everything seemed ready, the props were turned several times before the engine started. The crowd grew silent in anticipation. When everything seemed in order, the pilot revved up the engine, and the Flyer began moving down the track—slowly, too slowly.

Unlike 100 years ago, at the moment the Flyer traveled down the launch ramp, the winds died. The more than 34,000 aviation enthusiasts and officials who slogged through the rain-soaked park grounds on this day to witness the historic flight re-creation and who sat on the monument hill through pouring rain were reminded of the difficulties the Wright Brothers faced and of the fact that the aviation pioneers had to make numerous attempts before achieving their successful flights.

Nearing the end of the track, the pilot attempted to rotate. But without the necessary 10-20 mph headwinds and with a dampened engine providing minimal thrust, the Flyer’s nose rose off the ground—for a brief moment the Flyer lifted off, perhaps as much as 6 inches high, and then the airplane oozed into the mud at the end of the track.

Slightly damp, the Flyer was carefully rolled back into the "hangar" with little hope that it would make another attempt. But the crowd remained vigilant, wandering only a short way from the field in case another attempt would be announced.

By 3:30 p.m., the wind had increased and changed direction—another weather front was about to blow through.

The launch track was moved to face into the wind, and the Flyer rolled out to the field. Following preflight checks, the props were turned. The engine started. Once again, the wind speed dropped well below minimums. The pilot killed the engine.

The re-creation attempt was not going to happen this day.

The Flyer reproduction that the Wright Experience so carefully constructed over the past 3 years will now become part of the Henry Ford Museum near Dearborn, Mich.

And aviation’s second century begins.