Centennial of flight event failing to get off the ground

North Carolina aims for a big celebration, but economy intervenes

October 13, 2002|By Bill Sizemore and Catherine Kozak | Bill Sizemore and Catherine Kozak,THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

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.

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