Finally, the Wright B reproduction had landed--so to speak.
After weeks of delay and some last-minute anxiety, a precise reproduction of the B airplane, fashioned after the work of Wilbur and Orville Wright, arrived Friday at the College Park Aviation Museum.
It came on a 50-foot tractor-trailer by way of Interstate 66, the Capital Beltway and Kenilworth Avenue.
To museum enthusiasts, the arrival of the $280,000 "remanufacture" was only a little less historic than the arrival in 1911 of three Wright Bs at the College Park Airport, at least one delivered by Orville Wright himself.
The reproduction, which was not made to fly, is expected to become a major draw for the year-old museum.
The aircraft had been eagerly awaited all summer, as delivery dates came and went. Two weeks earlier, a reception for museum volunteers was abruptly canceled when Ken Hyde, the plane's builder, reported that a radiator made to order had arrived in dented condition.
Why should this matter? After all, the airplane will never fly. But Hyde, a former commercial pilot whose restoration work is recognized nationally, has set a high standard of authenticity that makes the newly delivered Wright B a prized possession for the museum.
In the years after Orville Wright's historic 12-second flight Dec. 17, 1903, he and his brother Wilbur built several more planes, including the Wright B, the first with landing wheels. Those delivered to College Park were used by the Army in the nation's first military aviation school.
The sign at the museum entrance already marked Friday as historic: "Sept. 3, 1999--The 1910 Wright 'B' replica arrived at the College Park Airport Museum."
"Oh hello, I didn't know you were here," said an animatronic Wilbur, poised at his workbench where visitors enter the display area. "I guess you came to see the flying machine Orville and I built for the government."
Indeed they had. Inside, staff had taped brown paper to the carpet to mark the "footprint" of the aircraft, which would be placed in front of a wall-sized black-and-white photograph of the airport in 1911, with a group of admirers clustered around the original Wright B.
The plane's late arrival Friday was full of suspense and angst.
"He told me it would be here last March," said museum Director Cathy Allen. "Then it was May. Then it was, oh well, you know. It will be that much more exciting when it comes."
Hyde's crew had worked until 10 p.m. the night before at his Warrenton hangar/shop to get the plane ready. Then they set to work again at 8:30 a.m. Friday preparing to get it on the truck. This, it turned out, was no simple task, as the 39-foot-wing biplane--minus the rudder and boom, which came in a smaller truck--would go into the trailer without hitting the roof only at a slight angle. That required the construction of wooden ramps, not just once but four times until it fit.
Museum officials knew none of this. All they knew was what Hyde had told Allen the day before to expect the Wright B about noon. Hyde also had made a request late Thursday afternoon. He would need a forklift, he said. Allen scrambled and succeeded in securing one from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns the museum.
About 11 a.m. Friday, the fans began gathering at the museum, along the runway of what is the world's oldest continuously operating airport. The forklift was there, along with a crew of four from Park and Planning detailed till 3. Then noon came and went, with no airplane and no word from Hyde. At 12:40, the fruit platters and crackers arrived but still no sign of Hyde. "This is like torturous," said Karin Hansen, museum program coordinator.
It was to drag on a while longer. At 1 p.m., Bob Strobell, a museum staffer with Hyde, called to say they hadn't left yet. At 1:10 p.m., Allen got off the phone with Hyde and reported, "He said they're leaving right now, they'll be here in an hour and a half. He said he didn't realize . . . "
At 2:43 p.m., as the holiday rush hour was well underway, someone in the Hyde entourage called from the Capital Beltway and Connecticut Avenue. "Can I break out the punch?" Karin Hansen asked. Said director Allen, "I'm so excited, nothing's going to get me down today."
At precisely 2:57 p.m., the long white trailer and a smaller Ryder rental truck appeared by the runway, which was closed to all air traffic--except for the Wright B repro coming by land.
"He's backing up," gushed Vera Rollo, a staffer. "We're breathless. The doors are opening. Yea!"
With his team of helpers, Hyde, in blue jeans and tennis sneakers, strode across the field, as cameras clicked and video-cams rolled. The trip, he said, "was scary with all the traffic." Park and Planning videographer Victoria Eaves knelt to capture on film the act of museum staffers pulling the wrapping paper off the floor. Allen said she was "so nervous" but "it is sooo cool."
Hyde had the rear of the truck positioned in a median depression between the two runways, so that ramps could be placed to give the aircraft an easy exit. "That is exactly what happened this morning" in reverse, explained Greg Coan, a Hyde assistant.
The forklift and its crew stood idle as the Wright B was rolled down the ramp, across a short stretch of grass, onto pavement and, finally, across the dirt to the open 42-foot-high glass doors of the museum. In reverential tones, Chris Wagnon, Park and Planning's acting director of historical and natural resources, almost whispered, "This is incredible."
When, at last, the airplane was gently rolled inside at 4 p.m., more than 50 onlookers applauded. "It was worth it," said Allen, relief written all over her face, and then tears. "I'm so excited, I just can't tell you. Can you believe it? Oh my God. It is unbelievable. Oh my gosh. It's sort of overwhelming, actually. You dream about what it was like. I got to go get a tissue."
The job wasn't quite done, however. The men attached the fuselage, rudder and horizontal stabilizer and opened the skids on the front of the aircraft, to more applause. Then, of course, the plane had to be positioned just right on the floor of the museum. "Is this like putting furniture in a house?" asked Beverly Hyde, Ken's wife. "Sort of," Allen said.
The College Park Aviation Museum, 1985 Cpl. Frank Scott Dr., College Park, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except holidays. Admission fees vary, depending on age. Call 301-864-6029 for more information.
CAPTION: Ken Hyde's employees put the finishing touches on the Wright B aircraft as it arrives Friday at its new home, the College Park Aviation Museum.
CAPTION: Ken Hyde, right, helps bring the Wright B aircraft off a tractor-trailer as the model arrived at the College Park Aviation Museum 88 years after the Wright brothers' planes arrived at the College Park Airport.
CAPTION: A brown-paper outline marks the spot where the Wright B aircraft subsequently was placed to become the central exhibit of the year-old aviation museum.