"Celebrating A Century of Wings"
When the citizens of the distant future look back on the 20th century, they will surely remember it as the time when human beings took to the sky. Images of flight already dominate our memory of the century past. In the fall of 1999, USA Today and the Newseum, an Arlington, Va., museum devoted to the history of news gathering, announced the results of a year-long poll in which 36,000 newspaper readers and a substantial number of journalists were asked to select the top 100 news stories of the century. The atomic bombing of Japan led the public list, followed by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the landing on the moon and the invention of the airplane. The journalists choose precisely the same top four stories, although they did reverse the moon landing and the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Was flight really so important in a century marked by war and revolution, hope and despair, and the rise and fall of nations, ideologies and empires? Certainly the results of the poll did not surprise the professional historians who were consulted by the newspaper. Douglas Brinkley of the University of New Orleans commented that Hiroshima was the "correct choice" for the top story. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., countered that the moon walk is what people will remember in 500 years. My personal response was to call attention to the fact that the first three events could not have occurred without the fourth.
While caution and concern regarding the long term impact of technology were hallmarks of the late 20th century, most citizens of the aerospace age seem to have preserved their enthusiasm for flight and admiration for those who fly. I can be fairly regarded as something of an authority on public attitudes toward the history of flight. For three decades, exactly half my lifetime, I have been employed at the most significant shrine of the aerospace age.
In an average year, nine million people will walk through the doors of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) -- 14 million in our best year. We welcome more visitors than the British Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan or the Louvre. It is the most visited museum in the world. When NASM opened to the public on July 1, 1976, the staff was confident of success, but no one expected the enormous number of visitors who arrived that first summer, or the wave of media enthusiasm that washed over the building. President Gerald Ford commented that the museum was "our bicentennial birthday present to ourselves." In fact, those of us who planned the museum could take only limited credit for its success.
The quality of the NASM collection is a far more important factor. What other museum in the world, covering any subject, can offer such riches? Visitors to the NASM can see the world's first airplane; the world's first military airplane; the first airplane to fly around the world; the Spirit of St. Louis; the Lockheed Vega that Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic; Wiley Post's Winnie Mae; Howard Hughes' classic H-1 racing aircraft; the B-29 Enola Gay; the Bell X-1 that Capt. Charles Yeager, he of the right stuff, first flew faster than sound; the world's fastest airplane; the first airplane to fly around the world non-stop and un-refueled; the first balloon to circumnavigate the globe; the first helicopter to fly around the world; the world's oldest liquid propellant rocket; the spacecraft that carried the first American into orbit; and the Apollo 11 Command Module that brought the first human beings to walk on the surface of another world home again. And that is only the tip of our iceberg.
But the core of the museum's appeal runs deeper even than the opportunity to see the actual aircraft and spacecraft in which intrepid men and women wrote the history of the 20th century in the sky. However one assesses the immediate consequences of aviation, flight remains one of the most stunning and magnificent of human achievements. People flock to the NASM from around the world because this is a museum that makes them feel proud to be human, members of a species that has achieved these wonders.
Surely, a century of wings is something worth celebrating. That was the thought animating a diverse group of people across the nation who initiated planning for the Centennial of Flight a decade ago. From the outset, there was universal agreement that this would be a grassroots celebration, in which interested folks, from national aviation organizations to local communities, would craft their own unique events. The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission and the First Flight Centennial Federal Advisory Board, which emerged in their final form from the Congress in 1999, were charged with coordinating all of those activities, and providing the visibility and cohesion required for a truly national commemoration.
It was an approach that succeeded. The centennial year was filled with a wide range of activities that gave millions of Americans an opportunity to participate in the celebration. The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission's online calendar listed a total of 545 events from January 1, 2003 to December 17, 2003. There were art exhibitions, museum displays, lecture series, symposia, air shows, flight academies, professional conferences, kite contests, air races, fly ins, and celebrations and festivals of every stripe. They ranged from the purely local, like the special flight focus given to the 54th annual Coconino County Fair in Flagstaff, Ariz., to events like Rockefeller Center's salute to the Centennial, which attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and national media attention.
The events that are the highpoints of every aviation year, such as the annual Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture Convention and the Dayton Air Show, were dedicated to the anniversary. Professional aerospace organizations, from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) to the Aerospace Medical Association and the International Symposium on Air Breathing Engines, built their annual meetings around the centennial theme. Non-aviation organizations, including the International Association of Science Teachers, added centennial sessions to their annual gatherings.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Seattle's Museum of Flight and the Franklin Institute all opened major exhibitions on the Wright brothers and American aviation. Other museums and universities across the nation marked the centennial with film festivals, special lectures, and educational programs related to flight.
Federal agencies with a special interest in flight also stepped forward. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) provided the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission staff, office space and administrative support. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administered the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission funding and provided procurement support. Both NASA and the FAA focused their considerable education resources on the centennial, and supported many local events with personnel and traveling exhibits. The U.S. Air Force created a Centennial Office, which not only operated its own programs but also provided broad support to local and national events and projects.
Then there were the major special events. Fayetteville, N.C., invited the state and the nation to attend its Festival of Flight. Across the country, Americans were thrilled when 29 beautifully restored historic aircraft came to town with the National Air Tour. Both the AIAA and the EAA organized full-scale national tours of replica Wright airplanes. No attendee will ever forget sharing an evening with the heroes of the air age at the National Aviation Hall of Fame event in the Dayton Convention Center, or gathering in the shadow of Kill Devil Hill to applaud 100 heroes of aviation named from the stage. President Bush helped to kick off the festivities in Dayton in July and braved the elements like everyone else who was at Wright Brothers National Memorial on December 17.
Education was a focal point for many Centennial Partners. Dayton's Inventing Flight produced a professionally-developed, multi-media curriculum package that used the story of the Wright brothers to spark the interest of 6th, 7th and 8th graders in science and math. Correlated to educational standards, the program was distributed to schools across the state and the nation. Ohio and the AIAA sponsored Class of 2003 programs that exposed students scheduled to graduate from high school in the centennial year to a variety of behind-the-scenes experiences and insight into aerospace careers. The AIAA also established a special program of graduate fellowships, while the EAA flew one million young Americans as part of its Young Eagles program. Web sites were the keystones of centennial education programs. The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission's Web site, a rich source of accurate information and educational materials, attracted a total of 3.7 million hits in December 2003 alone.
Thanks in large measure to the efforts of Carter Ryley Thomas Public Relations and Marketing Counsel, the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission's public relations planners, the centennial was an unqualified media success. Television, newspapers and magazines promoted centennial events and spread the message of the centennial Ð that Wilbur and Orville Wright had changed the world forever. Indeed, as the anniversary approached, it seemed that there was scarcely an evening when one cable channel or another was not offering centennial programming. The efforts of various groups and individuals across the nation to replicate the first flight captured the imagination of film makers and television viewers alike.
Many of us hoped that when the fireworks and the hoopla had faded, the centennial would leave a legacy. We were not disappointed. The National Park Service currently is conducting a detailed survey of historic sites that played a role in the history of flight. The resulting report will serve as the foundation for a generation of preservation efforts. The North Carolina First Flight Centennial Foundation funded improvements to the landscaping at Wright Brothers National Memorial; added a pilot facility at the nearby First Flight airstrip; and completely restored the great monument on Kill Devil Hill to its original appearance, complete with a rotating aircraft beacon. Finally, the Foundation funded a pair of temporary exhibition pavilions to supplement the visitor center.
Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park (DAHNP) is one of the most important legacies of the centennial era. The approaching anniversary helped to build broad support for a new park that would preserve and interpret the West Dayton neighborhood and other local sites where the Wrights had lived and worked. DAHNP includes the only original Wright bicycle shop that still stands on its original site and two new visitor centers. The effort involved upgrading related local historical attractions, including the home of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a high school classmate of Orville who became a famous African American poet; the 1905 Flyer, the world's first practical airplane; and Huffman Prairie, where the brothers completed the process of inventing the airplane in 1904 and 1905.
Could some things have gone better? Sure. But those disappointments are more than overshadowed by the unforgettable memories of a successful commemoration. December 17, 2003, provided a final set of memories. The weather and the wind did not cooperate. The Wright Experience crew had flown its replica of the 1903 airplane a few days before, but could not coax it aloft on the anniversary day. That did not seem to dishearten the 40,000 people who braved the elements to be at the spot where history had been made a century before. I stood with Ranger Darrell Collins looking up at the thousands of people, clad in colorful rain ponchos and jackets, spread like a crazy quilt over the slope of the big hill. Both of us realized that we would never again see that many people surrounding the great monument. Wilbur and Orville would surely have liked that. It was the perfect end to a great year.
Dr. Tom D. Crouch
Senior Curator, Aeronautics
National Air and Space Museum
Chairman, First Flight Centennial Federal Advisory Board