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World: Reaching For The Sky -- Marking 100 Years Of Powered Flight

  • Breffni O'Rourke

One hundred years have passed since the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright made what is considered to be the first powered, manned flight over a distance of a mere few meters. That achievement in 1903, beside a beach in North Carolina, changed the world forever. From that first flight has grown the world's aeronautics industry, which today routinely shuttles millions of ordinary people from one side of the globe to the other.

Prague, 17 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One of the defining moments in man's history came 100 years ago, on 17 December 1903, when Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first manned, powered flights in an airplane they designed together.

The few spectators present held their breath as Orville Wright, lying prone at the controls of the delicate flying machine, rose ponderously into the air for a few seconds and traveled 36 meters before returning gently to Earth. In all, the brothers made four flights that day among the Kill Devil Hill sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, on the eastern coast of the United States. The longest lasted 59 seconds.

National Park Service Ranger Bill Corcoran -- walking the route of the first flight -- says the wind was gusting at 50 kilometers per hour that day. "It was difficult for Orville to fly that plane that morning, but he was determined to stay in the air as far as he could," he said. "He was in the air for eight seconds, 10 seconds. Twelve seconds later, 120 feet [36 meters] from the starting point, Orville landed the plane here at the number one stone marker. It was only 12 seconds, 120 feet, but that was the first time man was able to break those bonds with the Earth with a powered flyer."

That small beginning heralded a new era, one which a century later has made air travel commonplace to the most remote corners of our world. And while that first flight is estimated to have only reached a height of some 2 meters, it has lead us toward a knowledge of worlds beyond our own.

U.S. President George W. Bush is scheduled today to attend a re-enactment of that first flight as part of festivities marking the anniversary. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, as well as Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who first broke the sound barrier, are also due to appear.

The importance of the occasion 100 years ago wss emphasized by the curator of aviation at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Werner Heinzerling: "I believe that it was one of the few key events technically and also economically of the 20th century. Mankind had been trying to fly for so long. He had dreamed of doing so for centuries, and he had been tinkering with how to achieve it."

Senior aviation writer David Learmount, of the British journal "Flight International," says the ability to fly has dramatically changed man's perspective. He notes that, for instance, the life of a fisherman in the Indonesian islands has been given a new dimension by the possibility to export his catch to the dinner tables of Tokyo, San Francisco, or Sydney.

"Is there anybody in the world whose life is not touched [by aviation]? Even those millions of people in less well-developed countries who have not personally traveled by air, their lives are affected by it, in that the world has become global -- that was beginning to be achieved before telecommunications and the Internet were as established as they are now -- and one of the biggest globalizers in terms of attitude was people beginning to travel [by air]," Learmount said.

Man's preoccupation with flight began thousands of years ago. The Chinese invented kites, those fascinating devices which we now think of as toys. But anyone who has flown a kite on a windy hill knows the effect of the air stream on the flat surfaces of the kite, a powerful physical interaction that pointed the way to the principles of flight in heavier-than-air machines.

Some 2,000 years ago, the Chinese built kites that could carry a person aloft, so man has actually had a bird's-eye view of the Earth for a long time. But that was tethered flight, where the vehicle stayed in one place in the air.

Closer to our era, the Montgolfier brothers amused the French nobles of the 18th century with their hot-air balloons, which first took domestic animals for a spin, then intrepid adventurers.

In England, at the start of the 19th century, Sir George Cayley invented a functioning toy helicopter and then a glider which actually carried a boy into the air in free flight. Cayley, though little-known today, is thought to be the first person to have consciously applied the four forces of flight -- namely, lift, thrust, drag, and weight.

Ninety-nine years later, these were the forces which Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully harnessed for their first powered flight.

Between those two dates, pioneering work on flight dynamics was done by many inventors, who tried to emulate birds with contraptions in which the wings flapped, either by being strapped directly to the arms of the pilot, or by a system of levers. Gliding also developed, with the most successful exponent being Germany's Otto Lilienthal, who made more than 2,000 flights with a maximum distance of some 350 meters.

Lilienthal's experiments captured the imagination of the Wright brothers, who began planning their own heavier-than-air flights. The Wrights themselves built successful gliders in the years leading up to their powered flight. As curator Heinzerling put it: "The basic information that led to the first flight in 1903 was comparatively recent [at the time]. The essentials were published in the 1890s by Otto Lilienthal, who built and flew the first really functional airplane, and on whose work the Wright brothers firmly based their efforts. And they naturally carried their research further, and managed to build a more perfect airplane than Lilienthal was able to do."

Other inventors in a number of countries also were striving for the goal of powered flight at the same time as the Wrights. As analyst Learmount put it: "If the Wright brothers had not managed it, it would have only been a year or two before someone else had achieved it, and probably in France."

One such pioneer was Brazilian-born French resident Alberto Santos-Dumont, who gave public flight demonstrations in 1906. His supporters claim he should be recognized as the father of powered flight because the Wright brothers' experiments were not subject to official documentation by independent judges. But rightly or wrongly, the Wright brothers wear the crown as the world's first powered aviators, and they will probably not now be unseated from their place in history's hall of fame.

From those brief flights near Kitty Hawk, the world of aviation developed at astonishing speed through the 20th century. By 1909, Louis Bleriot had shattered Britain's sense of insularity by flying across the English Channel. The first trans-Atlantic flight followed in 1919, the first round-the-world flight in 1924. From that point, commercial aviation developed exponentially, until today we have millions of ordinary people flying to the most exotic destinations in the world for business and pleasure.

Growth in the airline industry is expected to continue rapidly in the future, although in the developed world it is probably nearing its saturation point because of the density of air traffic and lack of space for airports.

Learmount said flight need not be seen as a luxury form of transport, in that "the air is an ocean that laps at every door." By which he meant that developing countries can make use of aviation's special qualities. "If you happen to have large amounts of mountainous territory, roads are very, very expensive," he said. "The cost of building them is massive. You have tunnels, viaducts, all the problems of building on mountainous slopes. So if you want to develop a modern road system, it costs a fortune and takes a long time. In aviation, you just build two strips of tarmac at either end of the route."

Curator Heinzerling notes that flying has always been linked with man's impulse toward the higher reaches of the spirit. "The original idea of flying was that man wanted to be free, that he wanted to be able to move about unhindered, that he wanted to lift himself upwards," he said. "The original motives were very idealistic and romantic."

A case of "per ardua ad astra," as the Romans would have put it -- "to reach the stars through strenuous effort."