THE WRIGHT FLYER -- the world's first successful airplane -- has been pulled down from the heights where it's been displayed since the Air & Space Museum opened. The 1903 plane is being restored -- or rather, preserved. Once cleaned, with new fabric on the wings, it'll be good for about a hundred years.

Through glass walls, visitors can view the private gallery at the museum where the plane awaits the ministrations of three technicians on loan from the Silver Hill storage facility. For the next three or four months, they'll be taking the plane apart and putting it together again. Six weeks from now, it'll be a pile of sticks -- all tagged and diagrammed, of course.

Its wood may need only soap and water. Speckled with rust, its metal pieces will be treated for corrosion.

Otherwise, senior curator Robert Mikesh hopes that the most they'll have to do is replace the plane's voluminous fabric. Tawny, torn and water-spotted, the white muslin sheets are giving up the ghost. Orville changed the cloth in 1927, so it's not original anyway.

"My difficulty was finding a factory that makes 100 per cent cotton," Mikesh says. The technicians will have to wash the fabric to remove preservatives that over time could affect any wood touching it. After they iron it, they'll stitch sleeves in the cloth for the spruce-and-ash structure of the plane to slip into.

"We are trying to retain what it was that Orville and Wilbur did to this airplane," Mikesh says. That includes leaving every little bit of string that was wound around a strut to strengthen it.

At Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the plane flew four times on December 17, 1903, before a gust of wind flipped it over on the dunes and severely damaged it. It was shipped to Dayton, Ohio, in pieces. Twice after that, Orville Wright supervised its reassembly and repair.

"This is the way Orville presented it to the world to remember: the first airplane," says Mikesh. "That's what we want to keep. It only flew four times that day and it was all over."

WRIGHT FLYER RESTORATION -- At the Air & Space Museum, Monday to Friday, 10 to 3, through May. A companion exhibit, open during regular museum hours, includes historic photos, and replicas of the Flyer's engine and the Wright Brothers' wind tunnel.