HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brother's first flight in December of 1903, we can safely predict an abundance of print and television specials about the milestone. (Try to keep track of how many times the phrase, "the Wright stuff," gets used over the next few months.) Of course, you don't have to look to the national media to start brushing up on your Kitty Hawk history - the Web offers all you ever wanted to know and more about the two overachieving bicycle mechanics. (But you'll have to stay alert - some of these sites seem to be experiencing navigational difficulties.)
First up is the official home of the US Centennial of Flight Commission. The site has a fairly busy homepage and a confusing design, but also offers a good selection of background information related to the anniversary. For a chronological perspective, the center of the home page displays a Countdown to December 17, while the upper left corner holds an interactive Event Calendar - offering a day-by-day catalog of current celebrations and ceremonies across the United States. (These listings can either be directly connected to the centenary or simply of related interest, such as airshows.) Other home page highlights include online games, a guide to Aviation Museums, and a rotating collection of daily features.
Exploration of the rest of the site is, shall we say, less than straightforward. To the left of the home page are links to material for Kids, Educators, Enthusiasts and the Media. These sections include such features as visitor-definable Timelines, historic still images, QuickTime movies of modern replica Wright Kites, Gliders and Flyers, period films, and a collection of aviation-related essays. Some of the same components are displayed across the center of the page, and are available again - along with other exhibits - under different titles along the bottom of the page.
All these variations on the same themes can make for a confusing visit - and the common occurrence of finding yourself at a page you've already seen, albeit via a different route. Even the Site Map, which appears at first to offer some hope of an orderly survey of the site, contains its own confusions and broken links. But, if you're interested in the history of the 1903 flight and later developments in aviation, Centennial of Flight's exhibits are extensive and varied, and worth the effort of exploration.
FirstFlight, on the other hand, has much less content - though you may end up spending more time at this site due to a unique attraction. This UK production (which also has its share of navigational idiosyncracies) puts the emphasis on the interactive through a series of "virtual science environments." These include a collection of QuickTime movies and VR models, Shockwave- and Java-based exhibits, and (this is where the dedicated or obsessed might lose a significant portion of their day) interactive flight simulators of three of the world's earliest aircraft. (The Wright Flyer simulator will give visitors a whole new respect for the brothers' skill in keeping the thing in the air.)
Still a work in progress, First Flight's main navigational quirk is that the site opens to a page that is roughly in the middle of the presentation's content. (Getting to the closest approximation of a home page takes a pair of clicks on the "About First Flight" link at the bottom of the index - one to open the site in a new window, and another to actually load the new page.) Fortunately for the purposes of this review, the page that does open upon first loading the site is dedicated to the Wright Brothers, with details and simulations of the Brothers' early experiments, as well as the Flyer at Kitty Hawk. (Flight-sim options include the presence or absence of wind gusts, and the ability to try controlling the Flyer at half-speed - though this may simply mean that it takes you twice as long to crash.)
Further exploration of the completed portions of the site will reveal information on the History of Flight, a quick lesson in Aerodynamics, biographies of other pioneers of early aviation, and two other flight simulators. (Start with Samuel Cody's British Army Aeroplane No. 1 - it's the easiest on the ego.)
Finally, in addition to various commercial and fundraising considerations, the online home of The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and Museum of Pioneer Aviation offers a detailed biography, photographs of all 19 types of aircraft that the Wrights produced, and sources for Wright Flyer retail model kits. For the truly dedicated do-it-yourselfer, free plans for the 1899 Wright Kite and 1902 Wright Glider are also available, and surfers can set the right period mood during their visit with a handful of early 20th Century tunes. While the Aeroplane Company has an even more densely populated home page than the Flight Commission, the layout is free of confusion and everything appears to be where one would expect to find it.
There are, of course, more websites dedicated to the Wright Brothers (some of which constitute the recommended links sets of the sites covered here) and still others may crop up in the coming weeks - so, if you're hoping to learn even more facts about the brothers and their aeroplanes, the web stands ready with plenty of the Wright stuff. (There. That's one.)