- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

Orville and Wilbur Wright's first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., 100 years ago is a well-known and much-celebrated event in American history.

However, a small airfield in College Park played an important role as well. It was there six years later that the Wright brothers trained the first U.S. Army officers to fly. That feat which came after a few years of indifference and outright rejection from the government is the centerpiece of the exhibit at the College Park Aviation Museum.

The museum is located off a runway at the College Park Airport, so visitors also can watch today's small aircraft take off and land. But it is inside the 27,000-square-foot facility that anyone interested in history or flight will be thoroughly entertained.

"Our gallery interprets the history of the College Park Airport through our collection of vintage aircraft," says Susan Fite, the museum's curator of public programs. "The airport has been operating since 1909, which makes it the nation's oldest continually operating airport. It was also the site of the first regular airmail delivery and the first Army aviation school. We are a history museum."

The museum houses 11 vintage aircraft, some of which are reproductions and some of which are restored originals. The display includes the first helicopter (circa 1922), a 1918 airmail plane and a 1910 Wright Model B.

The Model B is a great example of how far aviation has come. The plane is much like the Model A, which the Wright brothers flew in Kitty Hawk in December 1903. The Model B is built of spruce wood and coated with aluminum powder. It weighs 950 pounds, has a 38-foot wingspan and cruised at 40 miles per hour.

The museum features a surprisingly lifelike animatronic Wilbur Wright in his turn-of-the-century bicycle workshop. The robot explains in a folksy style how the Wright brothers finally were hired by the government to train two Army officers to use their airplane.

The first test flights were actually at Fort Myer in Arlington earlier in 1909. The plane was clocked at speeds of 42 miles per hour, which earned the Wrights a $5,000 bonus, as the plane was 2 mph faster than government specifications.

When it was deemed that Fort Myer was too small to safely train officers to take off and land, the large field in College Park was selected as a more appropriate site. In October 1909, Army officers Frederick Humphreys and Frank Lahm made their first solo flights after just three hours of flight time.

For younger children who would rather touch history, plenty of hands-on activities are available at the museum. The highlight is a 1936 Taylorcraft airplane that youngsters can climb aboard.

There also is an area with aircraft-themed puzzles, games, art projects and maps. There are pretend control panels to work and flight jackets to try on. Another popular spot is the outdoor play area, where children can ride tricycle "airplanes" on a paved area overlooking the runway.

The museum has many special events planned for 2003 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. An exhibit, "Celebrating a Century of Wings," will be on display in April and May. The exhibit will portray many of the key scenes from the first century of flight.

A Maryland Centennial of Flight open house will be held April 26 from noon to 4 p.m. The event will feature a family-oriented program with free museum admission. There will be special guests, lectures and children's crafts.

Many upcoming children's programs also are scheduled, including John Hadfield's Science Show, a mixture of science, singing, music and magic, Jan. 25; a model-making workshop March 8; and Paper Airplane Week, which will culminate with a paper-airplane derby, April 14 to 18.

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