THE ORANGE crate surmounted the sand dune and the world was changed forever.

Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic, 120-foot, 12-second airplane flight 75 years ago today, and it is only appropriate that anoter of the century's great inventions, television, pay tribute to that feat tonight.

"The Winds of Kitty Hawk," a two-hour NBC drama special at 8 on Channel 4, makes a warm, handsome, affecting homage, and it is one of the most visually beautiful films ever made for television. Perhaps it never goes much deeper into its illustrious characters' lives than the reverential biographies Hollywood used to crank out, but it succedds in making them real people with flaws and virtues and an obsession that still seems pretty magnificent.

The film has been directed with a flair and inventiveness rare in television. The director, E.W. Swackhamer, is-at least in relative television terms-a genuine stylist. He whipped up an enormous omelet of atmosphere for last season's CBS mini-series based on Dashiell Hammett's "The Dain Curse." Unfortunately, the script was weak and the program about three housr too long.


has a turn-of-the-century look and feel as tangible and authentic as something you might find in granny's attic. It is a model of attractive consistency, handsomely produced by Lawrence Schiller, whose fondness for fact-based fiction ("The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald") has never had a more pleasing and benign result.

"The following true story," notes a disclaimer at the opening, "contains scenes and characters that have been fictionalized for purposes of dramatization."

Exactly what's true and what isn't don't seem worth pursuing. Besides, one key element of the production is virtually unimpechable. Tom and Nancy Valentine of Los Angeles built the life-size replica of the Wright brothers' fliyer that we see floating and weaving, and pilot Odell Burton flew it for the filming. The Valentines, both 24, had begun working on their planebuilding project before Schille, already into production of "Kitty hawk," heard about them and hired them as consultants.

The plane is a gorgeous contraption, and Pismo Beach portrays Kitty Hawk well. More imortantly, in the roles of Orville and Wilbur, David Huffman and Michael Moriarty have clearly tapped the soul of the gifted eccentric. Their Wright brothers are the sort of tinkering, puttering oddballs we all knew (and may bave helped ostracize or ridicule in high school) except that the world will be indebted to these oddballs forever.

Moriarty-with a partially shaved head for the part of Wilbur, the elder and more passionate brother-puts his own eccentricites to subdued good use and makes Wilbur touchingly daft and recognizable. Huffman, one of the few actors to survive Norman Jewison's debacle "F.I.S.T." with his dignity intact (he played Abe Belkin, labor-organizing pal of Sylvester Stallone), contributes more quietly but just as substantially; his Orville has become accustomed to explaining brother Wilbur to the skeptical or alarmed. To an agent at the railway station where Wilbur is making something of a scene, Orville says diplomatically, "Wilbur's never been quite right in the head."

Much of the first hour is spent out in Kitty Hawk trying and erring, with one Wright brother manning the plane and the other shouting out advice from the ground. "Who's turn to fly is it?" Wilbur asks with disarming nonchalance; you can picture astronauts drawing lots, or flipping coins maybe, only a few decades later to decide who'll be the first to walk on the moon. Swackhamer should have included more shots of the ground from the point of view of the aircraft, but he does catch the exhileration both of leaving the confines of earth and gravity, and of racing to be first.

Although there is a romantic strain to this story that not even the world's deadliest deadpan could squelch, the filmmakers do not get deliriously sentimental in romanticizing the Wright brothers and their accomplishment. Weare educated on some of the practical problems the Wright brothers faced after the great flight. Of all people, Alexander Graham Bell is forever lurking in the shadwos, trying to get to the patent office before the Wright brothers do. It figures that the sort of fiendish mind that would dream up something as pernicious as the telephone would also be trying to hog the history books for himself.

Swackhamer successfully blends his footage with montages of period stills that help sustain credibility. You would think that a TV filmmaker would trust his audience to recognize the U.S. Capitol dome, however, without feeling it necessary to superimpose the legend "Washington, D.C." on the screen every time the story shifts there. Since the filmmakers have confessed to a certain amount of fictionalization in the prologue, it is unfair keep up a mock documentation of places, dates and times.

Even though flight is still less than a century old, we have come not only to take it for granted but to find it something of an annoyance. The commercial airlines have perhaps done all they can to take the fun and the thrill out of it, yet we can blame oursevles for being irked that it takes five whole hours to go from New York to Los Angeles-what an inconvenience! But "The Winds of Kitty Hwak" is so infectious about the joy of flight that you feel a little guilty for not being able to appreciate the sensation first-hand.

But we are probably becoming more flight-conscious than we used to be, thanks to such diversions as the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, visited in a public TV film recently, and the spectacular motion picture "Superman," which includes a lyrical romp about the clouds. Coincidentally enough, Superman takes Lois Lane by air around the Statue of Liberty, which is where we last see Wilbur Wright flying in the final and most moving scene of "Kitty Hawk." Like the film "To Fly" at the Air and Space Museum, it nearly or actually brings tears to your eyes. The spectacle is both ennobling and humbling because it makes us aware of what we can do when we put our minds to things, and aware of how tiny we are in relationship to the skies.

It is a fine story, an American story, and tonight, television tells ii eloquently.