The country is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Orville and Wilbur Wright's first flight. On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville took off near Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and stayed in the air for 12 seconds. Then Wilbur, on the same day, flew the same plane 852 feet in 59 seconds.

What very few people know is that it didn't work out as well as everyone expected. Two weeks later they started an airline, Wright Brothers Express, which flew between Dayton and Akron, Ohio. Two weeks after that, they filed for bankruptcy.

Orville said: "We didn't expect business to be that bad. People just weren't flying as much as we expected."

Wilbur said: "We offered discount fares, frequent-flier miles and free coffee -- and we still had to go into Chapter 11. The banks wouldn't give us any more money."

Orville said, "To stay afloat, we were told we had to downsize our operation."

"The only way to do this," Wilbur said, "was to fire either Orville or myself. It hasn't been an easy time for either of us. I should have stayed because I was the more experienced pilot. I flew the plane 852 feet and Orville flew it only 120 feet."

"But," said Orville, "I was the first one to fly."

To eliminate unneeded help, the bankruptcy judge said the brothers had to fire all the ground mechanics, except the one who turned the propellers to start the plane.

The Wright brothers blamed themselves for choosing to make the first commercial route between Dayton and Akron. Orville said, "No one in Dayton wanted to go to Akron, and no one in Akron wanted to go to Dayton, so we offered flights from Dayton to Cleveland."

Wilbur said: "It didn't get us out of the red, so we asked the government to bail us out. We argued that if it didn't come to our rescue, there would never be commercial aviation."

Orville said, "The government turned us down on the grounds that if flying ever caught on, many airlines would go bankrupt."

Wilbur added, "When we were turned down by the feds, Wright Brothers stock plummeted."

Orville agreed: "Wall Street stopped believing in us. The only thing we still had was our bicycle business."

Wilbur said, "That is what we were originally noted for."

In spite of all the setbacks, the Wright brothers continued running their airline with one, then two, and then three planes -- all made of muslin and plywood.

They flew to Muncie, Ind.; Paducah, Ky.; and Ann Arbor, Mich. The name Wright Brothers Express never caught on, so they decided to change it to United Airlines because it had more sex appeal to it, at least until it went broke.

(c)2003, Tribune Media Services