On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville Wright traveled 120 feet in his flying machine of ash, spruce and muslin, staying aloft for 12 seconds. That same day, Wilbur Wright piloted the plane with its four-cylinder engine 852 feet in 59 seconds.
Yesterday, 99 years later, the Smithsonian Institution assembled notables from the history of aviation in the shadow of the original Wright Flyer to mark the beginning of a year celebrating the advent of powered flight.
The lineup at the National Air and Space Museum included Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who first stepped on the moon; John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth; David Lee "Tex" Hill, one of the famed Flying Tigers of World War II; Charles McGee, one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of World War II; and Shannon W. Lucid, the astronaut who has spent more time in space than any other American.
The gathering also included relatives of other pioneers: Amanda Wright Lane, a great-grandniece of the Wright brothers; Erik R. Lindbergh, a grandson of Charles Lindbergh; Amy Kleppner, a niece of Amelia Earhart, and Edsel B. Ford II, whose great-grandfather, automaker Henry Ford, built the first modern airport at Dearborn, Mich., developed the concrete runway and built B-24 bombers.
Actor John Travolta, a pilot who has logged 5,000 hours, was emcee for the official kickoff of the "Centennial of Flight: Born of Dreams -- Inspired by Freedom."
"It is hard to compete with the 20th century. It was a brilliant time and that is what is exciting -- we are celebrating 100 years of achievement," said Travolta.
Glenn, who returned to space in 1998, 36 years after his historic flight, marveled at how condensed the history of flight is. "The Wright Brothers . . . then it was only 15 years later before they were dogfighting in the war with planes. Then 60 years later when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon," said Glenn, a U.S. senator for 24 years.
Lane said that although she was born after Orville and Wilbur Wright died, she heard many stories about them at her dinner table in Dayton, Ohio. She said she wanted people to know her Uncle Orville and Uncle Will as men who were zany and loved children. "I am very proud to be related to two men whom the world knew as great intellects, scientists and for me to have known them as sweet, wonderful men of great humor."
Erik Lindbergh, a pilot, re-created his grandfather's flight from New York to Paris this May, 75 years after Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly the route solo and nonstop. "In half the time and with twice the sandwiches," he quipped, adding, "Grandfather was not the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic but the last person to fly across the Atlantic and arrive in Paris the same time as his luggage."
The year of events is being coordinated by the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, authorized by Congress and headed by Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, the Air and Space director. Ten private and government organizations are planning exhibitions, reenactments and education programs. Next October the Air and Space Museum is going to lower the Wright Flyer so that visitors can see it at eye level for the first time since the Smithsonian acquired it in 1948.
Also next year, there will be a celebration on the Outer Banks dunes in North Carolina where the Wright brothers' plane made its famous flight. The Experimental Aircraft Association is sponsoring the construction of a replica, scheduled to take off from Kitty Hawk Dec. 17.