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Centennial of Flight kicks off year of festivities

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 17, 2002) -- A yearlong recognition of aviation began here Dec. 17 with the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission's national kickoff.

Among those in attendance were a retired member of the Tuskegee Airmen and a former Air Force pilot who flew with the Flying Tigers during World War II.

Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first powered aircraft Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Ninety-nine years later the Centennial of Flight Commission began a one-year celebration of aviation that will lead up to the 100-year anniversary of the Wrights' historic flight. It was significant, said the chairman of the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, that the kickoff of the celebration was held at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

"Nine years ago, a dream began to take shape in Dayton, Ohio, to pay tribute to two men whose dream to fly changed our world," said retired Marine Corps Gen. J.R. Dailey, commission chairman and director of the museum. "The stories of the Wright brothers and the pioneers of flight who followed them are filled with determination, innovation and compassion. Today, it is fitting that we begin this celebration in a place that is filled with highpoints of that spirit - a spirit we hope to rekindle across the nation."

Other speakers included leaders of modern aviation such as Sean O'Keefe, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Marion Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and Michael Jackson, deputy director of the Department of Transportation.

Actor John Travolta served as master of ceremonies for the event. Travolta is a licensed jet pilot who has logged almost 5,000 hours in the cockpit.

Included among the dozen aviation pioneers honored at the event were retired Col. Charles E. McGee, who represented the Tuskegee Airmen. McGee served some 30 years in the Air Force and flew more than 400 combat missions in three wars.

"I fell in love with flying," McGee said. "It was a chance to go from the prop age into the jet age."

Other individuals recognized at the event included retired Brig. Gen. David Lee Hill, a member of the Flying Tigers World War II group; Air Force shuttle pilot Col. Pamela Melroy; Dr. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon; Edsel B. Ford II, representing Henry Ford; Sen. John Glenn; Amy Kleppner, representing Amelia Earhart; Amanda Wright Lane, representing the Wright Brothers; and Erik Lindbergh, representing Charles Lindbergh. Simultaneous kickoff events were held near Kitty Hawk, N.C., and in Dayton, Ohio.

Near Kitty Hawk, a daylong anniversary tribute was held at the site of the Wrights' first flight, the Wright Brothers National Memorial, located in what is now known as Kill Devil Hills. Among the speakers were North Carolina Governor Michael F. Easley and Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command.

Among the events at the scene of the first flight, surviving members of the family of John T. Daniels, one of the few eyewitnesses to the flight, placed a wreath at the foot of a monument commemorating the event.

In Dayton, the Wright brothers' great-grandnephew, Stephen Wright, and other family members, laid a memorial wreath at the Wright Memorial on Wright Brothers Hill, located on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The National Park Service dedicated a new visitor center overlooking the field where the brothers perfected their invention of the airplane.