- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Wilbur and Orville Wright weren’t born with wings, but that didn’t stop them from flying. Almost 100 years ago, the duo accomplished what had seemed impossible: They solved the problem of human mechanical flight.

Even today, the example of the Wright brothers serves as an inspiration for modern scientists and inventors, says Peter Jakab, curator of “The Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age,” an exhibit that will be featured at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Southwest for the next two years.

“They had a very powerful capacity to go from the abstract to the concrete,” he says. “They conceptualized design solutions and turned them into pieces of hardware. … They also were consummate engineers. They were highly creative individuals.”

Among the 170 artifacts on display is the 1903 Wright Flyer, which first flew Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C. Although the machine has hung in the museum’s central entrance since 1948, Mr. Jakab says he wanted it to be more accessible to the public. It is now presented at eye level.

“Flight is a timeless dream,” he says. “People have no doubt thought about flying since the first time humans watched birds fly. … The final realization of that resonates with a great many people.”

The exhibit also features the stopwatch used to time the first powered flight, which lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. It also displays one of the five Wright-built bicycles still in existence.

Along with the artifacts in the 5,400-square-foot gallery, professional actors bring to life the personae of Wilbur and Orville Wright; their sister, Katharine; and author Franz Kafka, who wrote about flight. Their dialogue focuses on the background of the Wright family, the process of invention and the influence of human mechanical flight in the first decade of the 20th century. The actors perform at the exhibit twice a week.

Mr. Jakab hopes that future inventors, while learning about the Wright brothers, realize the flying machine was not created by accident. The pair had a method to their success, which involved viewing the airplane as many smaller problems to be solved within one invention. This approach could be applied to current far-reaching goals, such as finding cures to diseases or putting humans on Mars.

The brothers had a continuity to their design. If the first plan didn’t succeed, they didn’t scrap the entire pattern but tried to refine it. It took less than five years for the brothers to progress from their initial plans to the successful flight at KittyHawk. Further, the pair did this while running a bicycle business and with little outside assistance or formal scientific training.

In a letter to a friend written after the success of their airplane, Orville wrote, “Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so that we could discover them!”

Even if individuals are unable to visit the museum in person, they can log onto www.nasm.si. edu/wrightbrothers to learn about the brothers, says Clare Cuddy, manager of programs and publications in the education division of the Air and Space Museum.

“We want to point out the real genius of the Wright brothers,” she says. “They established the whole practice of aeronautical engineering. They could walk into any of today’s aircraft-development facilities and not be surprised by what they saw.”

Although the Wright brothers may not be shocked by modern airplanes, the public is still intrigued with the first airplane flight, says Ken Hyde, president of the Wright Experience in Warrenton, Va. For this reason, a re-enactment of the milestone is scheduled to take place at 10:35 a.m. Dec. 17 in Kitty Hawk.

Led by the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wis., Mr. Hyde’s company built a reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer. The event is open to the public, but tickets already have sold out.

“Our goal is to inspire a new generation,” Mr. Hyde says. “The Wright brothers are a great role model for young people. They teach you that you can do anything if you put your mind to it.”

In fact, Janette Yoerg of Edina, Minn., the great-grandniece of the Wright brothers, says her 13-year-old son, Keith, has dreams of becoming an astronaut.

“On December 17, when the flight takes off, it will be like being thrown back 100 years,” she says. “My son will get to witness that and feel the emotion of it. He sees that as his bridge to the future. He feels a pride and responsibility to continue on that journey.”

To draw interest to the re-enactment, the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission in Southwest is sponsoring a contest, the 2003 Flight Forecast. The online program (www.centennialofflight. gov) asks students in kindergarten through 12th grade to predict the weather conditions for the re-enactment, says Sherry Foster, executive director of the commission.

The weather on that day a century ago was cold, damp and windy, with temperatures below freezing. The winds blew at 27 miles per hour.

Looking back on that day, Wilbur wrote a letter about the reasons for their success: “It was due to peculiar combinations of circumstances which might never occur again.”

Despite Wilbur’s humility, Mrs. Foster says the Wright brothers should be regarded as American heroes for creating an ever-evolving technology.

“It would be nice if there was more appreciation of the significance of the accomplishment of flight,” Mrs. Foster says. “Kids today don’t ever know what it was like without airplanes. It has truly changed the way everyone lives.”

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