| Crew members roll out the replica of the Wright brothers’ 1903 flyer before the unsuccessful re-enactment. (AFP)
Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, Dec. 18: If anyone ever had doubts about just how hard it was for the Wright brothers to build an airplane and fly it, the efforts to put a replica in the air showed it hasn’t got any easier 100 years later.
First, the replica of the Wright brothers’ 1903 flyer did not fly at 10.35 on Wednesday morning because there was not enough wind. And when an attempt was finally made two hours later, the biplane ran down a wooden launching rail modelled after the kind the Wrights used and pitched into a puddle of mud. The propellers turned again later, but again the wind did not cooperate and organisers of the re-enactment called it quits.
Thousands, including Amanda Wright Lane, the great grandniece of the brothers, stood in the rain to honour a feat of controlled, sustained flight that defied reproduction a century later.
Instead, they heard from a former pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, President George W. Bush, who took two helicopters and Air Force One to get to the site. “The Wright brothers’ invention belongs to the world,” Bush said, “but the Wright brothers belong to America”.
For an unchallenged industrial giant and superpower, America has relatively few great inventions to its name, ceding the jet engine, the car, the television and the telephone to others.
The White House had considered using the centennial event, and the celebration of the spirit of exploration that surrounded it, to announce a grand new mission for the space programme, perhaps a return to the moon. But Bush made no announcement, except to respond to the actor, John Travolta, who is a qualified pilot and who volunteered to go on a lunar mission, by saying with a grin: “We shall call him Moon Man from now on.”
As the experiment on Wednesday underscored, cooperative nature was critical 100 years ago, when the weather here was cold and the wind strong. “Everyone who was here at that hour sensed that a great line had been crossed and the world might never be the same,” Bush said.
Bush left the field in Marine One before the attempts to get the replica of the flyer into the air. The result was that the spectators who had hoped to see the primitive wooden biplane buzz the field got a very different sight instead: ten minutes after the exact moment of flight, Bush was just overhead in Air Force One, looking out from his office aboard the 747 as it swooped in low over Kill Devil Hills, the dune where the Wrights tested their gliders.
Then the President’s plane slowly banked over the flat field where the Wrights’ contraption had barely made it 10 feet into the air a century before. After midday, the pilot of the Wright replica, Kevin Kochersberger, was ready to make a belated try. He never made it off the ground, first prompting a look of chagrin and later of laughter.
“I think it shows how tough what the Wrights did 100 years ago really is,” Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association, which commissioned the reproduction, said after the final attempt to re-create the flight was called off.
It took three years to research and build the replica.
Although the disappointment among the crowd was palpable, the relatives of the Wright brothers said simply being on the field, a century later, was enough.
Amanda said her famous ancestors “may have the best seats today, the view from above”.