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Limitations and protests prove an ill wind for the Wright stuff

Q & A

Last December an auspicious gathering took place at Kill Devil Hills, a large sandbank off the coast of North Carolina that is the hallowed spot where Orville and Wilbur Wright, two bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio, made the first powered flight 100 years before, on 17 December 1903.Unfortunately, unlike this earlier occasion, all did not go well with the re-enactment that had been planned. A crowd of thousands, including President George W Bush, assorted astronauts and 'Right Stuff ' jet pilots, had braved heavy rain to witness the centenary flight.This required the replica 1903 Wright 'Flyer' to stay in the air under the control of its pilot for 12 seconds and land not less than 120 feet away from its starting point, to match the original feat.

But alas this performance proved beyond it. The attempted flight was even postponed from the historically correct 10.45am in hopes of better weather but to no avail. When the 'Flyer' was finally released to run down its wooden rail and take to the air, its nose reared up and it fell back with one wing in a pool of water.

To say that this outcome disappointed everyone present would be an understatement, but perhaps least so for members of the small but hydra-headed gang of naysaying protesters who have always claimed that the Wright brothers were not the first to achieve controlled and sustained flight - or, if they were, they did not do it in 1903 but years later, by which time there were considerably more contenders whose claims would have to be considered in the light of the events of 1908, when the brothers had shipped a much-improved version of the 'Flyer' to France to demonstrate its greater capabilities.

But if the naysayers were heartened by reports of the worrying limitations of the replica 1903 'Flyer'- apparently in pre-centenary 'flight tests' it would only leave its launching plank against headwinds of 16 to 22 km/h (less wind and it would not unstick, more wind and it became impossible to control) - they did not say so loudly enough to shake the confidence of the most important ayesayer of all, President Bush. Clearly aware of the controversy, his speech, which he delivered before the abortive take-off, was already in counterattack mode. He began by quoting from a 1903 leader in the New York Times as follows: 'All attempts at flight are doomed to failure because to build a flying machine would require the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians from one million to 10 million years.' After a pause he delivered the punchline - 'As it turned out, the feat was performed only eight weeks after the editorial was written' - to prolonged laughter and applause as he made his way to his helicopter and left.

And left behind him the whole question of the ayes and the nays in more of a flux than ever. For 100 years before the episode of the non-flying replica 'Flyer', a professor at the Smithsonian Institution named Samuel Pierpont Langley, who was receiving funds from the United States War Department, developed his own experimental flying machine, the 'Aerodrome', which he had catapulted 50 metres from a houseboat into a lake in October 1903, shortly before the Wright Brothers made their first flight.

A contest of claims had ensued which ran on for nearly 20 years but was terminated abruptly when it was discovered that the 'Aerodrome', rebuilt by Langley's supporters in 1914, had been extensively altered from its 1903 iteration. At this, Langley's funding was cut off and the Wright brothers were vindicated? until 17 December 2003, perhaps?

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