Centennial of flight event failing to get off the ground


North Carolina wanted to celebrate being "First in Flight" in grand style.

And not with just a single day of hoopla, but with a year's worth of parades, flyovers and tributes.

The main attraction would be an elaborate aeronautics gala on the Outer Banks, where Wilbur and Orville Wright first defied gravity on Dec. 17, 1903. An aerial program would feature historic aircraft from around the world. An aircraft carrier would be stationed offshore. With the right marketing, talk was, perhaps as many as 1 million people would make pilgrimages to see where the world's first powered flight took place.

Accommodating so many would take a lot of preparation. So North Carolina got an early start, launching the effort in 1994 with a new state commission.

Eight years and $6 million later, the grand plans have fizzled to a five-day calendar of events. Potential funding sources have shriveled. Disgruntled event organizers and disappointed community leaders concede that many of the state's First Flight hopes will never get off the ground.

Warring First Flight organizations have vied for control of the main events. Unable to reach consensus, they have spent freely on consultants, travel, office space and separate staffs.

To date, the state-funded First Flight Centennial Commission has burned through about $4 million in tax dollars, including $3,500 for table linens at one event. The biggest chunk went for salaries. The commission had as many as 12 employees at one point, with the highest-paid earning $94,000 a year. Now, with the 100th anniversary of flight 14 months away, it's down to three staff members.

In one recent year, the First Flight commission spent nearly $200,000 on advertising, marketing and public relations.

Meanwhile, the commission's fund-raising group has only about $400,000 in the bank, leaving North Carolina's planning machine sputtering to get off the runway. And competing aviation events are rapidly moving into the First Flight airspace and consuming the limited aviation-friendly funding sources.

A group in Dayton, Ohio, where the Wrights were from, has raised $15 million and is far along with ambitious plans to commemorate the historic achievement. Even Fayetteville, N.C., is poised to upstage the Outer Banks with an 11-day festival in May.

Scrambling to save face, North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley dispatched a Cabinet secretary to spur along the planning. But by the time she came on the scene, progress was all but paralyzed by lack of money and poor communication.

A recent reorganization of state staff and offices, intended to shift more resources from Raleigh, N.C., to the Outer Banks, has prompted multiple resignations, including that of the commission's executive director.

So far, the only firm plans for the Outer Banks celebration call for a First Flight re-enactment on centennial day, Dec. 17, 2003, and four other aviation-themed days including a series of flyovers. And some critics worry that the main event, the re-enactment, runs the risk of being grounded by bad weather or mechanical problems.

"It's been a nightmare of frustration," said Melvin Daniels of Elizabeth City, N.C., a former state senator and the first chairman of the First Flight Centennial Commission.

An early start

A member of an old Outer Banks family, Daniels seemed an apt choice to spearhead things. His relative John Daniels was the Outer Banker who snapped the iconic photograph of Orville Wright hunkered belly-down on the lower wing of the 1903 Wright Flyer as it took to the air at Kitty Hawk, brother Wilbur running alongside. Daniels has been involved for more than a half-century in organizing annual First Flight anniversary observances.

The First Flight Society, a mostly local group of aviation enthusiasts who had put on the Dec. 17 event since 1928, went to state Sen. Marc Basnight in the early '90s and asked him to help the Outer Banks do justice to the momentous occasion in 2003.

Basnight, a Manteo, N.C., Democrat and Senate president, decided that a state commission was needed.

The motto "First in Flight" is emblazoned on North Carolina license plates, and the new state quarter bears the Daniels photograph. But for the most part, Basnight said, Raleigh had paid little attention to the brothers' accomplishment.

Creation of the commission by the General Assembly gave weight to the importance of the anniversary event. But the group was burdened with partisan conflict and regional rivalries.

Basnight's legislation creating the commission called for 26 members representing the entire state and numerous interested parties, all political appointees or office-holders. The number of members has since grown to 29.

Daniels' job was to lead the diverse group toward a plan. But the bulk of the estimated $21 million needed for aviation exhibits, visitor accommodations and event planning would have to come from private donations. So in 1995, the commission established the First Flight Centennial Foundation, a separate nonprofit group, to raise funds.

Soon, however, the two entities began clashing. "Once the foundation was created, we realized no one had any control over it," Daniels said.

With each new governor or legislature came new appointees to the commission. Meanwhile, the foundation board largely remained intact. Over time, the membership and agendas of the commission and foundation diverged.

As the commission's membership constantly turned over, plans initiated by one group of political appointees were changed by the next.

"The commission's challenge was to stay focused on the goal of a successful North Carolina celebration," said former commission executive director Kathryn Holten, who resigned in August. But, she said, the 29 commissioners all had their own ideas of what the centennial-of-flight anniversary should mean.

"If the Republicans take over the House and Senate this fall, two-thirds of the commission will change in January," said Chris Wise, the commission's former deputy director. "There's no stability. So how can it ever achieve any kind of cohesive vision?"

In 1998, open warfare broke out between the commission and the foundation when commissioners discovered the foundation had executed an exclusive agreement with the National Park Service, owner of the Wright Brothers memorial in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. To the chagrin of the commission, it gave the foundation the lead role in planning the celebration at the memorial.

In the ensuing tussle, the Park Service restored the commission's planning role, but handed staging of the main event to yet another entity - a private aviation enthusiasts' group in Wisconsin.

The commission and the foundation went their separate ways, with separate staffs, separate offices, separate Web sites - even separate logos.

When North Carolina celebration planners appeared in 2000 before a national Wright Brothers centennial commission in Washington, there were five different presentations.

Spending $4 million

The First Flight commission has spent more than $4 million in tax money, largely promoting North Carolina and the First Flight and tempting tourists with vague promises of grand celebrations in 2003.

In its 2001 fiscal year, the commission spent $105,000 on advertising, $52,000 on marketing, $33,000 on Web site maintenance, $27,000 on public relations and $370,000 on salaries, including Holten's $94,000.

Many of the commission's efforts have focused on education and outreach, which some critics believe should have taken a back seat to planning the celebration.

Staffers, for example, have spent tens of thousands taking mobile exhibits to state fairs in North Carolina and air shows in Florida and Wisconsin.

There's been international travel, too. Staffers spent $14,000 to attend a reception at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Ottawa, Canada, in 2000 and $29,000 operating a booth at the Paris Air Show last year.

Also last year, at a net cost to taxpayers of $79,000, the commission put on a four-day academic symposium in Raleigh with sessions on such topics as "The Pilot in the Comic Book: French Perceptions of Military Aviation in Popular Literature, 1950-1990." The trappings were first-class: The state spent $3,500 on table linens. But the event had a limited appeal, drawing only 170 paying attendees.

Foundation's activities

As with the commission, the First Flight nonprofit foundation's biggest outlay has been for salaries - close to $750,000 since 1995. The foundation has an executive director earning $72,000 and a fund-raiser making $70,000. It has spent some $200,000 on legal fees and has employed its own consultants for advertising, marketing and fund raising.

Its most recent tax returns show the foundation has spent 57 percent of its income on fund raising and overhead. The Better Business Bureau's charity guidelines say that figure should be no higher than 50 percent.

Since its inception, it has raised $2.5 million while spending more than $2 million.

It has one completed project to its credit: a $400,000 restoration of the granite pylon at Kill Devil Hills commemorating the Wrights' achievement.

"We should have had better control over how the money was spent," Daniels said.

In its early days, the foundation had lofty ambitions. A 1996 consultant's study predicted it could raise $30 million or more. Its list of projects at one point carried a total cost of up to $55 million.

The foundation's biggest fund-raising objective was a new $17 million visitor center for the Wright Brothers memorial to replace the existing center, a small, outmoded facility with a chronically leaky roof, built in 1960. But the foundation's efforts were thrown "into a cocked hat," in the words of its president, Richard Howard, when the existing center was declared a National Historic Landmark as an outstanding example of modernist architecture.

Park Service decision

The National Park Service, which owns the center, rejected plans to replace it. That decision halted the foundation's momentum, Howard said.

"We had spent two years in developing plans and spent a considerable amount of money and a dozen trips to Washington trying to get support for it, and just overnight they changed their minds," he said.

Not so, said Randy Biallas, chief of historic structures at the park service's Washington headquarters. Park officials and the state preservation office knew for at least 1 1/2 years that the visitor center was being considered for the landmark nomination, he said. A historian had visited the building; there was a draft study to comment on.

"We'd have gotten crucified if we'd done it behind their backs," Biallas said.

The foundation had spent $250,000 in state funds on architectural plans for the new structure, which, it now seems, may never be used. A fallback plan to expand the present center for $8 million was also shelved when it became apparent the job couldn't be completed in time for the 2003 celebration.

The existing visitor center is now closed for roof repairs, and it's unclear if the work will be finished by the 99th anniversary of the Wright flight this December. Meanwhile, visitors are jammed into a makeshift center in a trailer.

Basnight called the visitor center a "disgrace."

The Park Service plans to erect a $1.8 million "centennial pavilion," a temporary structure to accommodate the tens of thousands of visitors expected in 2003 - if the foundation can raise the money. It has about $400,000 so far.

Residents put off

The feuds have left some Outer Banks residents feeling ignored, disrespected and embarrassed.

"Dare County, the home of where these things are going to happen, has been a stepchild to the process," said Bill Harris, mayor of Kitty Hawk and a First Flight commission member.

Harris is a former superintendent of the National Park Service Outer Banks Group, which includes the Wright Brothers memorial. His grandfather, Elijah Baum, as a lad of 15 in 1900, was on the waterfront the day Wilbur Wright arrived by schooner from Elizabeth City. Baum directed the aviation pioneer to his lodgings in Kitty Hawk.

The site of the First Flight became part of Kill Devil Hills when that town was incorporated in 1953.

Harris' sister, Geneva Perry, worries about the stain a botched First Flight celebration could leave on the Outer Banks. Perry is a Dare County commissioner and chairwoman of the county's centennial steering committee.

Some of the blame is being pinned on Outer Bankers' distrust of outsiders, a feeling fueled by the region's geographic and cultural isolation from the rest of the state.

"There are individuals on the Outer Banks who seem resistant to the dedicated efforts of people who have been working to try and make this happen," said retired Rear Adm. Lafayette Ferguson "Ferg" Norton, the First Flight foundation's executive director and a former commanding officer of Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.

"Who will benefit from having an attractive Wright Brothers memorial, a place where people want to come and bring their families? The people of the Outer Banks, the merchants."

At highest levels

Despair over North Carolina's celebration planning has reached the highest levels of the state capital. Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat elected in 2000, asked the groups to try once more to pull together.

In response, Lisbeth Evans, his secretary of cultural resources, huddled with leaders of the commission and decided to split the commission office and staff into two components - one in Raleigh to carry on statewide activities and another on the Outer Banks to plan the celebration. The Outer Banks component would get two-thirds of the commission's budget.

But even that plan encountered resistance.

"It divides up in an even more confusing manner the old issue of responsibility and authority," Wise, the commission's former deputy director, wrote in an e-mail. He likened the reorganization to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

The commission's staff has been dismembered. Three whose jobs were moved from Raleigh to the Outer Banks in the reorganization have quit, leaving just three employees - two in Raleigh and one on the Outer Banks.

Evans has seized control of the commission's spending, locking its checkbook in a safe in her office and closing its bank account. Evans has also brought the Raleigh staffs of the commission and foundation under one roof.

"We've got 16 months until the celebration, and everybody needs to be on the same page," she said in August.

Hanging over the planning is a budget crisis that has frozen the commission's state funding at $750,000 a year.

"In the go-go days, I guess there was some expectation that the legislature would fund this whole thing. It won't happen," Evans said. The prospects of money from the federal pot, however, are iffy. For reasons that remain unclear, the Wright Brothers park failed to get its $2.3 million budget request included in the federal budget for fiscal 2002. Now the park needs $7 million in fiscal 2003 to stage a proper celebration, officials say.

Congress hasn't approved the '03 budget yet, but it's not expected to include more than $3 million for the park.

"If we don't get that federal money, then not only do we have to raise money for the pavilion and to stage the event, we also have to raise money to fix the park," Evans said.

That would put the onus on the foundation, the lead private fund-raising entity. And there is widespread disappointment in its success so far.

The downturn in the national economy and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have had a disproportionate effect on the aviation industry, the fund-raisers' primary target.

The foundation's largest contribution was $500,000 from the late Thomas H. Davis, founder of Piedmont Airlines. The second-largest was the $250,000 state grant spent on the now-discarded plans for a new visitor center. Howard, a Greensboro, N.C., construction executive, and fellow foundation board members have ponied up nearly $200,000 themselves.

The foundation has recently landed $100,000 pledges from Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. and American Airlines.

Norton, the foundation's executive director, is hopeful that more will follow. But he conceded, "It is not an easy job for a lot of reasons."

Celebrations elsewhere

As North Carolina struggles to pull off a respectable event, plans are under way for well-funded Wright Brothers celebrations elsewhere.

Dayton, Ohio, the Wrights' hometown, plans an 18-day extravaganza in July with a $23 million budget, funded mostly by private-sector contributions. About $15 million in cash, pledges and corporate sponsorships is already in hand.

"What is troubling to many of us is that we look at the kind of money that Dayton is putting into the celebration in Ohio and realize how difficult it's going to be for us to make an equal kind of investment in North Carolina," said Tom Lambeth of Winston-Salem, a co-chairman of the commission. "And the irony of that, of course, is that the most important event in the history of manned flight occurred not in Dayton, Ohio, but on the Outer Banks of North Carolina."

Organizers of the Outer Banks celebration are even feeling the heat from other communities in North Carolina. Fayetteville is planning an 11-day festival in May - which, its Web site promises, will be the largest Wright Brothers observance in the state. Several corporate sponsors have signed on to support the event's $3.5 million budget, and there will be heavy involvement by the Army, Air Force and NASA.

The Outer Banks centennial event is not the only one encountering turbulence. Recently the state of Virginia pulled its funding from an Aviation World's Fair that had been planned for April at Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport, citing insufficient revenues from advance ticket sales, sponsors and exhibitors.

The fair, for which $27 million in infrastructure has already been built, billed itself as "the most comprehensive aviation event ever held in the world." The central feature was to be a sort of virtual Outer Banks: a 35-foot hill representing the site of the First Flight, topped by a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer on a pedestal.

But the cutoff of state funding may be the death knell for the event.

Scaling back

As funding seems less and less certain, expectations for the Kill Devil Hills celebration have been scaled back. The commission, which had promised a yearlong celebration beginning this December, told Dare County last year that it was narrowing its focus to the five-day period Dec. 13-17, 2003. Even the plans for December 2003 include few specifics so far. President Bush has been invited, but it probably won't be known whether he'll attend until shortly before the event.

In July, the commission agreed to pay two consultants up to $800,000 to flesh out the schedule. In a feasibility report last March, the consultants warned commissioners that the success of the celebration is threatened by a critical shortage of funds and time.

The conflict between the commission and the foundation, together with the state budget crisis, "has nearly crippled the centennial plans," they wrote.

Ken Mann of Wanchese, the other commission co-chairman, said deadline pressure is finally forcing all the players to come together.

Hopes for re-enactment

All hope now seems to ride on a re-enactment of the historic flight at 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2003, precisely 100 years later. It will be staged by the Experimental Aircraft Association, a national hobbyists' group based in Oshkosh, Wis., with corporate funding from Ford Motor Co.

The association has contracted with The Wright Experience, an aircraft production team in Warrenton, Va., to build a replica of the Wrights' 1903 Flyer. The reconstruction is so meticulous that the "Pride of the West" muslin fabric stretched by the Wrights over their craft's parallel wings - popular at the time for women's undergarments, but no longer manufactured - is being made from scratch.

"This is as close to the original as possible," said park superintendent Lawrence Belli. "That's what the attraction was for the National Park Service."

In this case, authenticity is a two-edged sword. The 1903 Flyer was a rudimentary, notoriously unstable aircraft that was greatly improved by subsequent refinements. The Wrights flew it only four times; the fourth and longest flight covered 852 feet and lasted 59 seconds. After that flight, it was caught by a gust of wind, rolled over and damaged beyond repair.

The plan to focus the entire centennial celebration on a re-enactment with an authentic replica strikes some observers as risky - even foolhardy.

"I just think that's a terrible, terrible idea," said Wise. "Dec. 17, 1903, was a unique historical moment - everything came together for four flights. And it's not possible to replicate that. The more you build your story around the great Waldo Pepper flying his barnstorming machine, the more likely that when it fails, you will ruin your ceremony."

Those misgivings are shared by Dana Smith, a retired aircraft mechanic in Maine who plans to fly several Wright replicas at the Fayetteville festival.

"I don't think the '03 airplane is safe to fly," Smith said. "It was just a miracle that they flew in 1903."

Ken Hyde, a retired pilot and mechanic who is supervising construction of the 1903 replica for The Wright Experience, is confident that it will be flyable. "The only thing I know that's iffy is the weather, and I can't predict that," Hyde said. He and his team plan to test their replica in a wind tunnel to determine what weather conditions will be necessary to fly it. Based on those findings, they will decide on Dec. 17, 2003, whether or not to make the attempt.

It is a matter of record that the Wrights achieved flight, Hyde said. "And they did it without all the advantages that we have - the wind tunnel and all the testing and evaluation that we've done. It's not going to be easy, but it's easier for us than it was for them."

At the Outer Banks, where hopes for a successful centennial are riding on the efforts of Hyde and his team, park superintendent Belli said he's not worried. "Ken Hyde has done a lot of archival research to try and become as accurate as possible," Belli said. "I think he's got the best chance."

And what happens if the 2003 Flyer doesn't fly? Belli's reply was matter-of-fact.

"People are going to see what happens here on Dec. 17, 2003, at 10:35 in the morning."

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