Viewport: The Wright Flyer's Encore
More chances to see the famous airplane up close.
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, March 2006
“Viewport,” by National Air and Space Museum directorJ.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air&Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum’s ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the February/March 2006 issue of Air&Space.
No event could have been more significant for the National Air and Space Museum than the centennial of the invention of the airplane. The year 2003 was a blur of ceremonies, public programs, lectures, books, articles, documentaries, exhibits, and other observances, celebrating and educating the public about the world-changing achievement of Wilbur and Orville Wright and the century of aerospace advances that followed. Enthusiasm for the year-long celebration burst from all over the globe, and the National Air and Space Museum was a focal point for anyone wanting to join the party.
The Museum crowned its celebration of the centennial of flight with the opening of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in December 2003. At the ceremony held to open the center, a full-size reproduction Wright Flyer soared over the audience to trip a curtain and give our guests their first view of the spectacular new showcase of aerospace treasures. It was a breathtaking moment and a great day to be part of aviation.
Throughout 2003, excitement built as we all anticipated the opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center, but at NASM’s flagship building on the National Mall, the centerpiece program was the opening of the exhibition “The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age” in October. Many organizations and individuals were working hard on plans to tell the Wright story in 2003—several built reproduction Wright Flyers. But the National Air and Space Museum had a unique advantage over everyone. We have the original Wright airplane, the actual machine that carried Orville Wright into the air at 10:35 a.m. on December 17, 1903, beginning the era of powered flight. Armed with this ultimate aviation treasure, the Museum set about creating the most comprehensive exhibition on the Wright brothers and the invention of the airplane ever mounted. We displayed an unprecedented assemblage of Wright-related artifacts—170 in all—gathered from our own collection and loaned from museums and individuals across the United States and Europe.
One key to the immense popularity of the Wright brothers gallery is the opportunity to see the Flyer at eye level from just a few feet away. Always exhibited hanging since the Smithsonian acquired it in 1948, for this special presentation the Wright Flyer was placed in its own gallery, on the floor, so visitors could get a close look at every detail of the amazing machine. In this setting, the Flyer offers a powerful experience. If any inanimate object can be said to have charisma, this is the one.
“The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age” was planned as a two-year exhibition. In October 2005, the Wright Flyer was to return to its place of honor in the center of the Milestones of Flight gallery. But in light of its great popularity with the public, we have decided to extend the exhibition for another year. If you thought you missed your chance to see the Wright Flyer up close, you’re in luck. The exhibit remains on view, providing an exciting and informative window on the endlessly fascinating Wilbur and Orville Wright and the airplane that started it all.