A 100th-anniversary attempt to re-create the Wright brothers’ first flight flopped Wednesday when a delicate, wood-and-muslin replica of their airplane failed to get off the ground and splashed into a mud puddle.
On a rainy day when the winds on North Carolina’s Outer Banks were uncharacteristically calm, a team of engineers tinkered with the plane and waited in vain for the breeze to pick up before they finally gave up trying to match the feat of the two self-educated bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio.
“Well, if this were easy, I guess everyone would do it,” said Tom Poberenzy, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, a group of aviation enthusiasts that had a hand in building the painstakingly accurate reproduction.
Six inches of flight
In what was supposed to have been the climax of a six-day celebration of the historic flight on Dec. 17, 1903, the rickety Flyer roared its engine and began the slow crawl down the 200-foot wooden launching track, rising just 6 inches for about a second before hitting the sand.
The plane, created at a cost of $1.2 million, twisted awkwardly before stopping with its right wing pushed into the sand, leaving a snapped crosswire and broken fitting.
As a crowd estimated at 35,000 groaned, pilot Kevin Kochersberger dropped his head in disappointment. President Bush, who had spoken at the anniversary festivities earlier in the day, had already left and was not on hand to see things go wrong.
About three hours later, after repairs to the engine and front wing assembly, organizers rolled the plane out to its runway to wait for the rain to ease and the wind to pick up.
Using a crew including Wright descendants to help move the plane into position, Kochersberger, wearing a crash helmet and 1903-era necktie, lay with his hands on the controls, waiting for a gust of wind that never came. Kochersberger shrugged with resignation as the team called it quits and let the engine sputter to a stop.
“Unfortunately, the conditions that Wilbur and Orville could wait for, we couldn’t,” said Ken Hyde, who led the reproduction team. “I would have liked to have seen the aircraft fly, but I don’t control the weather.”
Some flight enthusiasts who booked their tickets a year in advance for the event said they were disappointed with the scuttled re-enactment, but most chalked it up to the attempts to make the plane historically accurate.
“It would have been a nice addition to the thing, but I don’t think it’s critical,” said Peck Young of Austin, Texas. “I think the whole event has been about commemorating the flight.”
The plane has achieved flight twice before in three practice runs, covering 100 and 115 feet.
There were no immediate plans to fly the plane on another day. The craft, financed by the Ford Motor Co., is scheduled to join the collection at the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
The reproduction — 605 pounds, with authentic spruce ribs and a wingspan of 40 feet — matched the brothers’ work down the thread count of the muslin covering its wings, and the frustration it produced was also historically accurate.
Orville and Wilbur Wright crashed their flyer at least once before pulling off their successful flight at Kill Devil Hills, not far from Kitty Hawk. The contraption they built in their bicycle workshop back in Ohio took flight four times that day; the first lasted 12 seconds, the final one was 59 seconds long and covered 852 feet.
Looking back, looking ahead
The re-enactors had planned for years to launch the airplane at 10:35 a.m. ET, 100 years to the minute from when the Wrights first ascended into the skies under motor power. That plan was scrapped not only because of the drenching, scattered rains, but also because winds on the normally breezy Outer Banks dipped below the minimum 10 mph needed.
Bush arrived by helicopter at the Wright Brothers National Memorial and assured the shivering crowd that a touch of bad weather had not stopped the Wright brothers.
“On the day they did fly, just like today, the conditions were not ideal,” Bush said. “The Wright brothers hit some disappointments along the way.
“There must have been times when they had to fight their own doubts,” he said. “They pressed on, believing in the great work they had begun and in their own capacity to see it though. We would not know their names today if these men had been pessimists.”
In advance of Wednesday's visit, there were rumors that Bush might announce a new space initiative, perhaps including a return to the moon. But White House officials downplayed the rumors, saying there would be no major announcement.
Actor/pilot John Travolta referred to the lunar option in his introduction for Bush. “Not only do I vote for that option,” he told the president, “but I volunteer to go on the first mission.”
Bush joked with Travolta in return. "We shall call him 'moon man' from now on," the president said. He also played to an audience that included retired senator/astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, as well as the first men to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
“We remember one small machine, and we honor the giants who flew it,” he said. The comment evoked the first words spoken by Armstrong when he stepped on the lunar surface, about “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
As Bush’s departing Air Force One passed over the memorial, it dipped its right wing, as if in salute.