Trouble At Kitty Hawk

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Celebration Activities

An estimated 50,000 people will visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial Park at Kitty Hawk to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first free, controlled, and sustained flight in a power-driven, heavier than air machine. Time is growing short and the planning for the event has been slow to take off but is now picking up speed..

The First Flight Centennial Commission (FFCC) and the National Park Service share primary responsibility for planning the affair. The state funded, 28-member commission was established by the General Assembly in 1994 to organize the celebration in North Carolina.

Although the commission has been given almost twice the time the Wright Brothers had to design, build and successfully launch their machine, progress has been slow. That generated considerable concern within the park service that planned to feature a re-enactment of the first flight as the premier event for the anniversary celebration.

Recreation Of First Flight

The plan is to build and fly an exact reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer. This is no small task, because no one other than the Wright Brothers has flown the 1903 model Flyer. The job is difficult because the Wrights never did make detailed engineering drawings of the Flyer, including the gas engine. Whatever early blueprints they may have made, were not saved, in part because the brothers were secretive.

Frustrated after three years of inaction from the commission and realizing this task needs as much lead-time as possible, the park service proceeded to award a contract for constructing the Flyer to the Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association. They in turn subcontracted the task to the Wright Experience, an aircraft restoration firm located in Warrenton, Virginia, owned by Ken Hyde.

The FFCC was not happy by this precipitous action, claiming they were not involved or officially informed of this decision ahead of time.

The good news is that Ken Hyde is on schedule building the Wright Flyer. An added benefit of his work will be that he is researching and documenting how the Wrights went about developing and manufacturing the airplane.

Dare County Frustrated

Now, there is tension between the FFCC and the Dare County (where Kitty Hawk is located) local citizens planning the celebration. Frustrated by the lack of planning and guidance from FFCC, Dare County people unilaterally established their own steering committee headed by Geneva Perry.

Ms. Perry is the granddaughter of Elijah Baum, who as a boy fishing along the banks of Kitty Hawk, first greeted Wilbur when he arrived in 1900. Elijah gave Wilbur directions to William Tates’s house. William Tate had invited the Wrights to do their experiments at Kitty Hawk.

The local people are worried that time is growing short and much planning is required for the celebration activities including support functions such as law enforcement, emergency medical service, fire departments, etc.

Exacerbating the problem is the state budget woes. FFCC’s original biennial budget request of $5.6 has been cut to $785,000 in fiscal year 2001-2002 with a promise of the same amount for next year. The impact of the reduction is that each locality in the state will need to plan and fund their own events.

Update: The Department of Interior and the Omnibus Bill provided by Congress now provides a total of $2,432,000 to fund the weeklong celebration in December. The original request was for $7 million. (3/1903)

Memorial Visitor Center In Disrepair

There is another big problem. This one is caused by the Federal Government and involves the Wright Brother Memorial Visitor’s Center.

The park service originally planned to replace the existing 41-year-old visitor center in time for the centennial celebration with a new structure over twice as large as the existing structure.

The existing center leaks like a sieve whenever it rains. The foam on the 10,000-square-foot roof is cracked and the engineers aren’t sure of what other structural problems exist until the roof is removed. In addition, the building is inadequate for handling crowds, has no auditorium and offers inadequate space for displays.

Out-of-the-blue last year, the Department of Interior (DOI), headquarters for the park service, shot down the replacement idea by deciding that the existing visitor center is a unique structure with its distinctive domed roof and large glass-paneled walls and is worth preserving as an historical landmark.

The decision was driven by the conclusion that the structure is a key work in the emerging “Philadelphia” movement of architecture that focuses on the concept of “expressive modernist architecture.”

The Philadelphia architectural firm of Mitchell & Giurgoia is apparently behind this decision. A group of young architects designed 114 visitors’ centers across the country between 1956 and 1966 under a DOI program known as “Mission 66.”

Whatever the merit of the architecture, the focus of the park is the Wright Brothers, not a building. The existing building distracts from that function.

The new plan is to repair the existing leaky building and possibly build an additional learning center sometime in the future that will, architecturally, be minimal to maintain the prominence of the modernist elements of the existing building.

A contract of over $810,000 has been allocated to repair the roof. The building will be closed during repairs for an unidentified period of time. If past delays on the project are any guide for the future, the building may not be completely ready for the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight on Dec. 17, 2003. Update: Roof is now 95% complete. (3/1903)

The current repair includes removal of the existing roof, underlying insulation, vent flashing, vents, acrylic dome skylights and curbs. Once they get the roof open, there may be other problems they will find.

An architectural consultant has already identified many other problems with the building. They include extensive cracking of the eaves, soffits and walls, leaking windows, settling of the concrete slab, electrical wiring that doesn’t meet code, no handicap bathroom facilities, antiquated heating and cooling system, inadequate lighting, no fire detection devices or sprinklers, inadequate lighting and corroded structural steel. $350,000 worth of improvements are on the “to do list.”

Fixing the roof and other renovations doesn’t begin to fix the problem. The building needs to be razed and replaced by a new facility as was originally planned. This is not in the cards at the present time.

Update: A 20,000 square foot pavilion is under construction. It will have a 1,000 seat auditorium and space for high-tech exhibits. It is designed to last five years. Ribbon-cutting is scheduled for May 21. (3/1903)

Will The Weather Cooperate?

If there isn’t enough to worry about, there is concern that the weather conditions may not cooperate to support the premier attraction of the re-enactment of the First Flight on December 17, 2003. December’s weather is unpredictable. The Wrights had trouble with the weather and experienced much delay because of it.

The 1903 Flyer had extremely marginal flight performance. Experts believe that a minimum headwind of 25 mph will be required to enable the Flyer to takeoff. The average flightspeed of the machine in 1903 averaged 31mph over four flights. If the headwind too high, the Flyer may even “fly backwards.”

The re-enactment flight is planned for 10:35 a.m., exactly 100 years to the minute after the Wrights’ famous flight. A repeat performance is planned at 2:30 p.m. Flights are also planned during the week.

If conditions on December 17 don’t allow an actual re-enactment, a film of the re-enactment will be shown.

Now that would really be a downer.

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