KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. -- Clad in plastic ponchos and clutching cups of coffee, the thousands who gathered on the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk Wednesday had hoped to see history repeat itself on the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. But it was just as they feared: Nature hogged the spotlight.
Organizers of the First Flight Centennial Celebration had planned to culminate the six-day affair with a re-enactment -- 100 years to the minute later -- at 10:35 a.m. Wednesday.
But sporadic downpours and insufficient wind interfered with two attempts to re-create the 120-foot, 12-second flight of Dec. 17, 1903, and transformed the place where Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew into puddle-ridden terrain.
Had all gone as planned, the 35,000 spectators who clustered at the Wright Brothers National Memorial would have witnessed a pilot propel a reproduction of the world's first successful airplane -- the 1903 wood-and-cloth Wright Flyer -- along a wooden launching rail and soar into the air.
But humidity crippled the performance of the replica's primitive 12-horsepower engine, causing it to produce less power than needed. A driving rain and blustery conditions forced re-enactors to skip the attempt at 10:35 a.m.
And during later tries at 12:30 p.m. and 3:45 p.m., the lack of a stiff wind dashed efforts to get it airborne.
Pilot Kevin Kochersberger, an engineering professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, did manage to lift off the rail to an altitude of six inches for a 1-second flight during the noon attempt, but the craft stopped dead when the winds abruptly faded.
The 605-pound plane landed in a puddle.
The Wright Experience, a plane-restoration facility in Warrenton, Va., was commissioned by the Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association to duplicate the plane to the smallest detail and train pilots to re- create the flight.
EAA President Tom Poberezny said that despite the failed attempts, the event was a success.
"Our goal was to focus attention on the 100th anniversary of flight," he said, adding that the plane had three successful test flights in the past six weeks.
Arriving by helicopter earlier in the morning, President Bush used the occasion to deliver a patriotic tribute to the inventors of the airplane.
"In the future, flight will advance in ways that none of us can imagine as we stand here today," Bush said, his trench coat soaked by rain. "Yet always, for as long as there is human flight, we will honor the achievement on a cold morning on the Outer Banks of North Carolina."
Noting that it was just 66 years between the Wrights' first flight and Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, Bush highlighted the progress of aviation and said that "by skill and daring, [Americans] will continue to lead the world in flight."
There had been speculation that the president might announce his support for future space exploration, including building a permanent base on the moon or returning to Mars. But he made no such announcement during his 13-minute remarks.
From man's first mimicking of birds, through the Greek parable of Icarus to Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century designs for a flying machine, the dream of flight has captivated the human mind. That might explain why thousands braved frigid air and pelting rain to assemble around an 800-foot circle of sand in the middle of the Wright Brothers National Memorial park in hopes of witnessing the re-creation of the first powered flight.
John and Edie Bleattler of Colonial Heights, Va., turned out at 6 a.m., and while they were happy to get education materials and Kochersberger's autograph for their grandson, they were surprised that organizers had not scheduled a rain date for the much-anticipated event.
"It all hinges on this one day," Edie Bleattler said. She wound up watching video of a successful Flyer test flight on a Jumbotron screen broadcast by organizers.
For Terry Queijo, an American Airlines pilot from Trappe, Md., who served as backup pilot, the event marked the end of a 17-month journey. She was the lone female candidate among four competing for a chance to portray Orville or Wilbur and pilot the Flyer reproduction Wednesday.
Her chances were looking good in July when she made the cut as one of two "Pilots of the Century" who would flip a coin -- as was the Wrights' custom -- to determine who would assume the role of Orville and attempt to re-create his historic flight. The loser, as Wilbur, was to attempt a second flight later in the day.
But Queijo's quest came to a disappointing end Saturday when the EAA decided to scrap the coin toss and announced Kochersberger as the pilot who would re-create the flight.
EAA officials said the decision was based on results: Kochersberger had two successful test flights with the Flyer reproduction, and Queijo's one flight had ended in a crash. With training time exhausted, Queijo had no time to make what she described as a "confidence-building flight."
"I'm pretty disappointed about it," she said before the event. "It was a hard thing to swallow that we had no more time and there was a financial factor as well. It was all very difficult to come to terms with. But I'm glad I could help as far as the ultimate goal of this team.
"It's been such an incredible experience for me," Queijo, 48, said Wednesday. "I've been thrilled."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun