Tuesday, November 25, 2003

One hundred years later, success is not guaranteed

Kill Devil Hills, NC: The wind is blustery; the sky is blue with a hint of clouds high above. The school children, 6th graders from the magnet program in Portsmouth, scurry with enthusiasm off the bus into the brisk late November air. We've been riding for nearly two hours and look forward to learning about the Wright Brothers. The memorial looks down on us; our buses are parked in a lot surrounded by temporary buildings.

We gather together to listen to a park ranger tell us the story of the Wright Brothers and the first flight. We sit and stand entranced at the story. We're in a temporary building; the floor is two-by-sixes and the roof is fabric; it ripples in the wind. The end of the building is open, and we listen to the ranger tell the tale, the field spread out between the monument and us.

As the ranger talks, there's a sudden movement behind him, and we can see a plane being wheeled out from a temporary hanger across our field of view. I catch my breath and realize I'm not alone. Students crane their necks to see, suddenly losing interest in the ranger's story of events from a century ago, now more interested in what might happen today.

Less than an hour later, we are witnessing history. Across the field, perhaps some several hundred yards from us, is a replica of the Wright Brother's plane. It was built to reenact the first flight. The ranger has told us that if flew successfully last week. Today, we'd see the second flight, this time with a different pilot.

As we watch, the children form a line; all want a front row seat. I stand behind, certain that this is the coolest thing I've seen in a long time. From across the field, I can see several people hand cranking the big propellers. Suddenly they catch, and I can see the blades turn to a blur. Suddenly, the plane starts to move down the track, just some couple of hundred of yards from where the Wright Brothers first got off the ground.

A hundred years ago, Kill Devil Hills wasn't a place. I don't think Kill Devil Hills was incorporated until the 1950's. The Wright Brothers came to Kitty Hawk, a small town on the Outer Banks which held not much more than a post office, telegraph station, and life saving station. The land was barren; around their experimentation field, the only structures were two wooden shacks they'd built: one to house the aircraft and the other to serve as their home-away-from-Dayton. Nothing but sand and dunes from the waters of the Atlantic over the island to the sound to the west.

Today, I'm sure the Wright Brothers, and the five men who witnessed that first flight, wouldn't recognize the area. Trees, tall and scrubby trees, border the field. Houses and strip malls and big box retailers flow from north to south, seemingly eating every inch of land. I vaguely remember vacationing nearby some thirty years ago; even then, it was nearly the boonies.

The area surrounding the Wright Brother's field has been built up, much in anticipation for the upcoming centennial celebrations. Between their field and Kill Devil Hill, a large plot of land has been plowed up for the reenactment flight. Temporary buildings -- some futuristic pre-fab structures boarder the east side of this field along with a huge temporary bleacher workers are still constructing. Along the west side of the field, almost right up against the trees which form a buffer to the general aviation airport to the west of the park, is a long tent-like platform structure which will house the media for the reenactment flight.

We stand north of the new take off spot, and I can hear the drone of the plane's engines. Suddenly, it begins to move slowly down the track. And then, it's airborne. The nose goes up; I cringe. The pilot over corrects and the nose buries itself. She'd been airborne for nearly a second.

I try to remember what the park ranger said. Several days before Orville's first flight on 17 December 1903, Wilbur had won a coin toss to pilot the plane. He had the same thing happen to him. Got airborne; stalled; over-corrected; crash (or, perhaps we'd call that a "hard landing).

From across the field, I see people running to the plane; prominent among them is a camera man and a person with a boom mike. Later, I learn the Discovery Channel is making a documentary.

A couple of minutes later, we start trudging toward the memorial on top of the hill. I see the flyer, and she looks frail. The fabric is torn, the front elevator already removed by the technicians; the plane looks tiny and broken sitting on the track. I am both amazed that the Wright Brothers succeeded and that, with all our technology, we can't get it right. I imagine the two pilots have practiced in wind tunnels, used computer simulations, trained and honed their reactions. The Wright Brothers spend something like $3000 to build their flyers up to 1903. The re-enactors have spend something like a million, and they didn't get it right today.

I also wonder if the airflow today was as clean as it was a hundred years ago. As those seven men stood around on the morning of the first flight -- Orville and Wilbur, a couple of men from the local life saving station, a student playing hooky from school -- the wind whipped off the ocean and drew clean across the sandy island. Today the wind rippled across, broken by the trees and buildings.

Some things change. Some things never do.

No comments:

Post a Comment