- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Kill Devil Hills, N.C. — More than 30,000 aviation admirers spent five days immersed in the science, technology and history of aeronautics during the First Flight Centennial Celebration surrounding the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

Even though the celebration’s highlight — a re-creation of the Wright brothers’ Dec. 17, 1903, first flight — never made it off the ground, visitors found plenty to do while ducking occasionally torrential rain and chilly conditions.

• NASA had two impressive areas at the event. First, visitors could walk through two linked 48-foot-long trailers to see what life is like aboard the International Space Station by viewing some of the places used in the habitation and laboratory modules of the orbiting living environment.

Second, its tented museum combined interactive learning with space artifacts to give a quick, well-rounded review of NASA’s programs. On display were such items as a space shuttle’s main engine and various astronaut gear. Visitors could use computer display screens to read about all of the shuttle astronauts or create the perfect engine in a computer simulation.

• The Experimental Aircraft Association’s pavilion was another major hub of knowledge, thanks to simulations, displays and its hangar, which held the reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer as it was tweaked for its unsuccessful flight attempt.

Besides plenty of information on Orville and Wilbur Wright and a concise but fascinating look at the Sikorsky VS 300, the first successful helicopter built in the United States, the most immersive experience came through a computer game that gave junior aviators a chance to see what it would be like to pilot the 100-year-old craft.

With the help of Microsoft’s excellent aviation software, Flight Simulator 2004, and a life-size controller mechanism to lie on, just as Orville did on the brothers’ groundbreaking feat, “pilots” watched a large video monitor while attempting to maneuver the world’s first powered airplane with their hands and hips.

• The Air Force’s Command and Control & Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center joined in to scare the pants off fans of the “Terminator” movies as interactive devices or personnel from the center explained what, in theory, its Warfighting Integration System could do. Ultimately, they said, it would allow a soldier to communicate that his platoon was in trouble and receive precise support strikes from aircraft all tapped into the mother of all communication systems. If the system had been called SkyNet, I would be packing my bags for the North Pole.

• A who’s who of aeronauts also was on hand during the entire celebration, but some of the most important folks came by on the fourth day to be introduced as members of the First Flight Centennial Commission’s 100 Aviation Heroes.

Well-recognized stars of the sky, including speed-of-sound-breaking pilot Chuck Yeager; the oldest human to fly into space, John Glenn; and the two astronauts who walked on the moon during the Apollo 11 landing, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, were honored along with lesser-known but equally important contributors, including the first woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship, Patty Wagstaff.

mDoes anyone have $313,900 I could borrow? That chunk of change could put me into an SR22 four-person aircraft complete with high-tech color LCD screens to replace boring instrument gauges, and a parachute that pops out of its rear to bring a distressed flyer and his expensive craft gently back to earth. When not touting its creation, Cirrus Design used its mobile museum to help explain the physics of flight, the evolution of navigation and advancements in flight safety.

• The Air Force gave young aviators plenty of reasons to join its ranks with a few amazing exhibits. After taking a look at an F-16 fighter jet, visitors could take part in an air-to-air refueling game, take a virtual-reality parachute jump or strap into the Extreme Equilibrium Ride to understand the spatial disorientation pilots deal with while flying and fighting in America’s most advanced aircraft.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail ([email protected]).

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