Up, up and away at Science Center - or maybe not

Local `pilots' try simulation of Wright flight

October 11, 2003|By Aron Davidowitz | Aron Davidowitz,SUN STAFF

Eight-year-old Matthew Stone watched as his mother, Maureen, climbed aboard the odd-looking "flying" contraption, got locked in and attempted, using her hands and hips, to navigate it above a landscape of beach and brush and farmhouses.

Maureen Stone, 43, from Wilmington, Del., did not do very well, but that didn't seem to upset her young son.

"Cool!" cried Matthew. "She crashed!"

Fortunately, only his mother's pride was hurt. Her brief flight was merely a virtual one, a partly person-powered but mostly digital try at re-enacting the Wright brothers' feat: the first sustained controlled flight of a heavier-than-air machine 100 years ago near Kitty Hawk, N.C.

This weekend at the Maryland Science Center, people of all ages can try to best Maureen Stone - and Orville and Wilbur Wright - by testing their flying skills on the 1903 Wright Simulator Flyer, part of a traveling exhibition marking the Wright centennial in December. The Science Center's brief exhibit opened Thursday and runs through tomorrow.

A century ago, on Dec. 17, 1903, the Wrights made history when Orville traveled 120 feet in 12 seconds, and later, when Wilbur went 852 feet while remaining aloft for 59 seconds.

On the simulator's opening day in Baltimore, not all those strapping into the device were having similar success. Even so, Microsoft Simulations product manager Darryl K. Saunders, who has been traveling with the Wright exhibit, said the Baltimore crowd was showing above-average aviation skills.

"It think it's the crab cakes," said Saunders, who has watched thousands of would-be Wright brothers attempt to virtually relive the men's experience.

Those who tried the simulator agreed it takes a little time to get used to, especially the hip controls, used to control the pitch of the flight. Even experienced pilots, the Microsoft representative warns, may find using the device counterintuitive.

Beyond celebrating the Wrights, the simulator is also promoting Microsoft's Flight Simulator 2004 computer game, which offers users a variety of flying experiences. In addition to the 1903 Wright Flyer, there are 23 other planes to choose from, ranging from historic models (such as the Spirit of St. Louis, which Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927) to modern passenger and military jets and helicopters.

Microsoft enlisted aeronautical engineers, historians, pilots, software testers, programmers, and meteorologists to make the simulator as lifelike as possible, down to replicating the noises each plane makes. Players can adjust such variables as the level of play and the weather.

At the Science Center, the skill level is set for easy, making it possible for even the greenest pilot to possibly surpass the distances flown by the Wright brothers on that December day almost a century ago.

One wonders what the Wrights would think of that. Not that the famously reticent brothers were overly effusive about their own accomplishment that day.

Wright historian James Tobin pointed out in his book To Conquer the Air that Orville Wright assessed the feat as "a flight very modest compared with that of birds."

Maybe Maureen Stone shouldn't feel so bad after all.

Flight study

What Microsoft 1903 Wright Simulator Flyer

Where Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St.

When Today, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; tomorrow, noon-5 p.m.

Tickets: Adults $12, children $8, seniors $11

Call: 410-685-5225, or online at www.mdsci.org

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