- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2003


Except for the surf and the sky, there is very little up and down this stretch of coastline that resembles what Wilbur and Orville Wright saw a century ago when they were teaching themselves to fly.

Jockey’s Ridge, a great sand dune just south of here saved from development, probably comes closest. There, you can stand of an evening and watch hang gliders shouting with glee as the wind takes them.

A troupe of acrobatic dancers in blue body suits is flipping and flopping in a tidal pool at the foot of the dune while a cameraman stands hip-deep trying to film their gravity-defying maneuvers against the sky.

This will be part of a multimedia endeavor to be presented at the Wolf Trap amphitheater in the Washington suburbs in December.

The bizarre scene goes virtually unnoticed in the clamor of a beach resort trying to get ready for the season.

A busy springtime parade of pickups and service trucks roars pass the Wright Brothers memorial in Kill Devil Hills. No one pays much attention to two large blue-gray pavilions for exhibitions and programs expected to open later this month at the site of the first powered flights on Dec. 17, 1903.

After nearly a decade of planning, there were concerns here until recently that funding was inadequate for this event. The National Park Service said it is still looking for a private donor to furnish chairs for the festival so guests won’t have to stand or sit in the sand.

A traffic plan won’t be ready until the fall.

But the park service, which is running the show along with a private foundation, claims to have everything poised for takeoff.

This hand-to-mouth struggle to commemorate perhaps the most important technological anniversary in history couldn’t be a more fitting tribute to the Wrights. The most amazing part of their story is that it was done out of their own pockets and completed by their own will. They even stitched their wing coverings on borrowed sewing machines.

For the Wrights, there were no foundations or government grants to get them going. They had to put all the parts together each season in Dayton, Ohio, ship them, bring in supplies, build their own sheds, erect their own living quarters and fix their own meals.

They had a lot of help from neighbors, even though turn-of-the-century Kitty Hawk residents must have thought two young men watching birds and imitating their wing curvature a little strange. But elsewhere, people took them even less seriously. The Wrights were good at everything but public relations. They tried to keep the press at bay instead of beating the drums.

In Washington, Samuel Langley, director of the Smithsonian Institution, had huge subsidies from the War Department. Everyone thought he would be the first to achieve powered flight. But his multitiered contraption, launched from a vessel, crashed spectacularly in the Potomac.

A century later, the story line is about the same. By an act of Congress, the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission was created. The centerpiece of the 100th anniversary will be the new Smithsonian air and space facility, a $311 million permanent building of 760,000 square feet at the Dulles airport complex.

That’s a little larger than the temporary soft-sided $1.8 million pavilion about to open here at the refurbished Wright museum.

The Smithsonian has custody of the original Wright craft — quite an irony in itself since the Wrights spitefully willed it to the British.

Only a model of it is on display here. Tickets for the December events just went on sale on the Internet for $10 a day for adults. Even at that, it’s a tough reservation. In December, you can never tell what the weather will be.

Yet, a lot of people want to come. Generations of vacationers have brought their children to take their pictures, flapping arms, at the marked field where the brothers flew. Organizers are expecting 30,000 to 50,000 people per day here in the dead of December to remember a couple of young men who did it by themselves.

John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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