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Paying Homage

by Anne Corwin

12/17/98

This morning, when I went into the storage bay where the Wright Flyer model is being kept while it awaits its turn in the tunnel, a coworker from my building was there, and he asked me if I was "paying homage". "No," I answered. "I'm just measuring the diameter of this thing (motioning at a cylindrical object protruding from the front of the sting mount to which the craft will be affixed)." Turns out I was ignorant up until this morning that December 17th (today) is the 95th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight. It's pretty amazing that human beings could fly before my great-grandparents were even born. Who knows what we'll be able to do fifty or even twenty years from now? Think about it: it took humankind millions of years to get off the ground in the first place, but it was only sixty-six short years after that that we were able to leave the planet!

I've had this fixation on achieving the speed of light in a manned craft since I was seven years old...I remember the year precisely because that was the year I saw a movie called "Flight of the Navigator". It was about a boy who was taken away at light speed for study on another planet. He was gone, from his perspective, only 4.4 hour while those on Earth experienced eight years passage of time. After I saw that movie, the idea that the passage of time could somehow be related to how fast one was moving kept me awake at night and, probably much to the delight of my parents, prompted me to watch the Discovery Channel. Well, I've gotten way off the subject of the Wright Flyer, but my point in that story was that if it weren't for the Wright Brothers who knows when humans would have figured out how to build a working airplane? Would NASA even exist now? Would people be making movies about the possibility of faster-than-light travel?

Okay, back to Earth now. (I'll spare you further philosophical musings...for now!) Anyway, I DID end up getting to watch/experience the move of the Wright Flyer from one side of the Moffett/Ames base to the other. I say "experience" because of the exciting manner in which I got to become part of the procession. They ended up moving the Flyer earlier than I'd thought they were going to, so by the time I got over to the hangar the plane was already in two separate pieces loaded and tied onto trucks. (The trucks were moving, and they were steadily growing smaller in my field of view.) I really wanted to see what was going on and watch the rest of the move, so I ran toward the trucks. I saw my boss, Pete Zell, and he motioned for me to go faster. Now, I am a near-obsessive bicyclist, but I hate running with a passion. It seems so inefficient for the amount of energy that must be expended, and I always seem to get a cramp in my side. Nevertheless, I ran after the Flyer and its entourage of personnel and eventually caught up and jumped like Indiana Jones onto a truck. (Well, maybe not QUITE like Indiana Jones.)

Anyway, I spent the large part of the journey sitting on the edge of a pulled-down cold metal backflap of a white pickup truck. Most of the space in the back of the truck was being taken up by the canard structure to the Flyer. (The main part of the craft, the part with the wings on it, was on a larger truck in front of the one I was on.) I talked to a few of the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) members; they turned out to be very cool guys. They seemed really enthusiastic about the project and quite pleased to be using the wind tunnel here at NASA.

When we reached the bay where the Flyer was to be stored, I got sort of scared for a minute because of how they had to get the model off the truck. The wingspan of the Flyer is about 40 feet, and this entire structure was being lifted off a truck by a forklift that was about five-feet wide! I kept picturing the whole thing tipping to one side and splintering with an ominous crash onto the hard, smooth concrete floor. But that didn't happen, of course, and I felt almost silly afterward because of how easy the mechanics and AIAA guys made it look. They simply slipped the flat prongs of the forklift under the model, hoisted it up, and then the guy driving the truck drove forward. Then, two people took hold of the wings and the forklift lowered the model gently but quickly onto the ground. It all went very well from what I could see, and there was an atmosphere of liveliness and even fun that seemed odd, if welcome, at an industrial work site. Definitely an experience. Well, I think if you've gotten this far you're probably exhausted by now, so good-bye until my next entry!


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