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The Wright stuff. (The Final Word).

From the look of things in the world now, we are currently participating in the greatest era of aviation since the Wright brothers' first powered flight in December 1903. It didn't take much research for me to figure that out. All I needed to do was take a peek at a few of the airports in my local area. Even with the hit the aviation industry has taken since the events of 9/11, millions of Americans board flights bound for destinations throughout the United States and the world.

Militarily speaking, I remember learning in history classes from high school and college about all the missions and battles that have depended on warplanes since World War IL From the Battle of Midway in 1942 on through Operation Iraqi Freedom today, naval aviation has played a key role in every major military conflict in which this country has been involved for the last 60 years.

Then, I look at technology. Manned flight has certainly come a long way since the days of men jumping off cliffs with wings strapped to their arms. Just think about how far aviation has come in 100 years.

Therein lies my problem. I never, ever think about flight.

The big roadblock for me is my little-known fear of flying. It pretty much prevents me from thinking, even semi-intelligently, about anything involving flight. I'd be hard-pressed to tell you the first step in the process of making an airplane fly. It'd be even tougher for me to begin describing anything about the experimental glider used by Orville and Wilbur Wright in October 1902 to get the ball rolling a century ago. But I had to find out. My searching came to an end aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) with LCDR Klas Ohman.

That's because Ohman is one of the few people to have ever flown both the Wright brothers' ground-breaking glider and the state-of-the-art F/A-18C Hornet, one of the main weapons in the Navy's extensive flight arsenal.

Now before you start doing the math, quit worrying. I can tell you the Navy definitely does not have a 125-year-old aviator regularly taking to the skies. Ohman pulled off the feat by taking on a replica of the Wright brothers' glider as part of "Return to Kitty Hawk," a commemoration of the brothers' glider flights in Kitty Hawk, N.C. For the event, Ohman, a graduate of The Citadel, who I assure you is only in his mid-30s, logged a total of 25 flights in the glider.

But Ohman didn't just jump into the glider immediately after touching down in Jockey's Ridge. To prepare for the event, he needed to adjust to the glider's technology, or, rather, the lack thereof. Instead of worrying about pushing buttons, feeling the thrust of the engines and handling a stick to get in the air, Ohman's flights required a nominal wind speed of 15 knots and four people running the vehicle up to a speed of five knots to take off.

That somewhat crude technology did lead to some remarkable advances in flight, however.

The flight on Oct. 8,1902, led to perfecting a system of mechanical control that is still in use on airliners today.

That first powered flight came to fruition Dec. 17, 1903, and that aircraft, which took part in experimental flights for four days, traveled for a total of 12 seconds.

As for the glider, it's longest flight in 1902 measured more than 250 feet, staying in the air for some 40 seconds, a far cry from flights today, which travel seemingly endless miles to countries all over the world. The aviation community's celebration of the Wright brothers' feats, including the "Return to Kitty Hawk" commemoration, is still underway. With the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight quickly approaching, Ohman and other military and civilian pilots are looking forward to retracing more of the Wrights' historic steps. Perhaps the biggest of those plans were revealed March 18, when a replica of the Wright Flyer used in 1903 was unveiled at Washington's Reagan National Airport. The 605-pound, seven-foot-tall glider was built primarily of wood, steel and muslin and will tour the country before flying the exact path of its predecessor on Dec. 17, the 100th anniversary of the first flight.

For an aviation dummy like myself, it's a good thing the 100th anniversary isn't happening until December. I still have a few months to learn a little more, and maybe even get over that fear of flying.

Ludwig is a journalist assigned to Navy NewsStand, Washington. D.C.
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Author:Ludwig, Charles
Publication:All Hands
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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