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Looking for Mr. Wright

The Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton, an area rich in aviation history, seeks a little love from flight buffs.

By Hannah Schardt
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 17, 2003; Page C02

Orville Wright is not, perhaps, the most glamorous celebrity to resemble, but Neil Bates isn't complaining.

"People tell me I look like him," he says with shy pride. "It's the mustache, I guess."

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That, and the fact that Bates sometimes shows up at the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton, where he works as a staff educator and tour guide, in turn-of-the-last-century cap and knickers.

"I guess I kind of identify with them because they were amateurs," he says of Orville and Wilbur Wright. "They did it all with their own money, with no help from the government."

The Wright brothers are the populist superstars of aeronautical history. They are also the stars of a new exhibit at the Air & Space Center, which last month opened a $6.4 million expansion -- just in time for today's centennial of the brothers' historic flight.

That flight, of course, took place on the dunes near Kitty Hawk, N.C. So Virginia is neither "First in Flight" nor the "Birthplace of Aviation." Those license-plate boasts belong to North Carolina and Ohio (the latter being where the Wrights were born and did most of their engineering). But Hampton, which sits on the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the Hampton River, can lay claim to several other serious aeronautical firsts. Naval aviation was born when the first plane launched from a ship at Hampton Roads in 1910. Both the Air Force and NASA have roots in Langley Field, now Langley Air Force Base just north of Hampton. The first astronauts trained there at the beginning of the space program.

And in 1992, the center itself made it into the Guinness Book of World Records -- by launching the largest-ever paper airplane. Take that, Kitty Hawk.

Yet for all this, Bates, as do some other locals, says the region is neglected in the annals of aviation history.

"Our area tends to get ignored," he says. "It seems you don't hear as much as you should about us."

The city hoped to change that with the opening, in 1992, of the Air & Space Center. And it seems to have worked: The museum draws about 400,000 people a year to see a collection that spans 100 years of flight, from a replica of the Wright Flyer to the Apollo 12 command module to a mock-up of the Raptor, which next year will replace the F-15 as the fighter jet of choice at Langley.

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