Almost exactly a century ago, on Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first four powered airplane flights in Kitty Hawk, N.C. The longest lasted 59 seconds and carried Wilbur Wright 852 feet.
A couple of years later, the U.S. Army was looking for a heavier-than-air plane that could transport two people for at least 40 miles. In addition, the plane had to be easy to fly. This was the Wright brothers' chance to sell their perfected airplane. To fulfill their contract, they also had to train two U.S. Army officers, Lt. Frank Lahm and Lt. Frederic Humphreys. So a flying school was created, and aviation at College Park was born.
For today's visitors to the College Park Aviation Museum (1985 Corporal Frank Scott Drive, College Park, 301-864-6029), the history of flying comes to life. After a greeting by an animatronic Wilbur Wright, the visitor's imagination is captured by a replica of Wright B, the first airplane flown at College Park Airport. This fragile biplane was built of white cloth and painted wood - looking like metal. Two small velvet chairs with no seatbelts seem to invite the brave for a flight. Others look fearfully at the gas tank behind the chairs.
Luckily, today's safety standards are much better. Proof waits just outside the huge window at the front of the museum. The former training facility of the Wright brothers is still in use as the "World's Oldest Continuously Operated Airport." Visitors can easily catch a glance of a modern plane taking off or landing on the 2,600-foot runway of College Park Airport (1909 Corporal Frank Scott Drive, 301-864-5844).
The museum offers visual attractions as well as hands-on excitement for all ages. "They can listen to the actual air traffic at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, fly in one of the two flight simulators, or create a picture with their own aviation story," Susan Fite, the museum's program curator, explains.
Michelle and Samantha Smith, age 2 and 4, are especially interested in a machine that blows air toward the ceiling and lets colorful balls dance on that stream. It's a demonstration of Bernoulli's principle, which explains what helps airplanes fly. Though too young to understand the principle, Michelle and Samantha still enjoy the demonstration.
The College Park Aviation Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and members of groups of 10 or more, and $2 for children or students. Kids under the age of 2 are admitted free of charge. Group tours for 10 or more people are available with reservations. Call 301-864-6029.
To learn more about aviation
Baltimore-Washington International Airport Observation Gallery (BWI Airport, 800-I FLY BWI): While enjoying a cold drink inside the warm terminal, visitors can watch all those airplanes come and go. Plus, the cockpit of a Boeing 737 is on display. The observation gallery is open daily free of charge.
National Air and Space Museum (Flagship Building on the National Mall, Independence Avenue at Sixth Street S.W., Washington, 202-357-2700): Each year more than 10 million people visit the National Air and Space Museum with its world's largest collection of air- and spacecraft. The collection includes the original Wright 1903 airplane, the Apollo 11 command module that carried the first men to walk on the moon and a touchable lunar rock. The museum can be visited daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at no admission charge. Tours are offered, if prearranged: 202-633-2563.
Goddard Space Flight Center - Visitor Center (Soil Conservation Road, Building 88, Greenbelt, 301-286-8981): Fly further into space at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Established in 1959, it is one of the largest research and development facilities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Visitors can measure the distance to stars with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, simulate a collision between Jupiter and a comet or take a picture of themselves in space. Outside is a Delta Launch Vehicle and an Apollo mock-up. The Apollo successfully carried three men to the moon. The visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. No admission is charged.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, Va., near Dulles International Airport, 202-357-2700): This brand-new Smithsonian facility houses a large collection of historic aviation and space artifacts, including the Space Shuttle Enterprise and a prototype of the Boeing 707. Visitors are welcome daily between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. No admission is charged.
Where to eat
94th Aero Squadron Restaurant (5240 Paint Branch Parkway, College Park, 301-699-9400): Can't get enough of those airplanes? Then the 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant is just the place. The entire dining room faces the runway of College Park Airport. That way no plane will escape the plane lover's eyes. The rest of the family can enjoy the delicious all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.
Seven Seas Restaurant (8503 Baltimore Ave., College Park, 301-345-5807): This restaurant offers everything from kung pao chicken to handmade sushi combos. Stick around for the restaurant's lunch specials for under $5. A note for non-meat-eaters: Vegetarian dishes are 20 percent off on Tuesdays.
College Park is just around the corner. Take Interstate 95 south until you hit the Washington Beltway (I-495) toward College Park. Exit at Kenilworth Avenue (Exit 23). Turn right on to Kenilworth Avenue (Route 201 south). Turn right again at Paint Branch Parkway. Take another right turn at Corporal Frank Scott Drive. Continue until you see College Park Airport. The Aviation Museum is next to the airport.