KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. — In the Greek myth, Icarus proved the dangers of sticking feathers to himself with wax and flying like a bird. (He fell into the ocean.) But 100 years ago, Wilbur and Orville Wright ushered in modern aviation with not much more: They stretched a little white muslin cloth over a spruce wood skeleton, cranked up a homemade 12 h.p. gasoline engine, and took off for the sky. Just barely.
On Dec. 17, 1903, the brothers' four short airborne hops near Kitty Hawk, N.C., ranging in length from 120 to 852 feet, changed the world. These were the first controlled, sustained flights in a heavier-than-air machine. The dreams of children since before the Greeks - and scientists back to at least Leonardo da Vinci - finally had been realized.
Today, aviation continues to merge art and science, mystery and mathematics. It has brought the world closer together, nearly eliminated geographical isolation, brought tourism to the masses, expanded and speeded up commerce, and widened the horizons of everyone from poets to politicians and inventors. But it has also transformed warfare, making it more lethal, and handed to terrorists a new and awful weapon. And for all its practical feats and flaws, it has retained a magical hold on the human imagination.
The airplane "was the definitive invention of the 20th century," says Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "It absolutely reshaped the course of human history."
A poll of journalists and newspaper readers in 1999 found that the invention of the airplane ranked No. 4 among the top events of the 20th century. But the first three events - the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the moon landing, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor - all would have been impossible without aviation.
To understand its transformational impact, it helps to travel back in time. In the 18th century, for example, transportation was so slow and dangerous that moving even 50 to 80 miles meant it was unlikely you would ever again see the parents or siblings you left behind, says Char Miller, who teaches a course on the impact of aviation on society at Trinity University in San Antonio. In the 19th century, the same was true of those who took the Oregon Trail west. But in the 21st century, jet travel means even a college student on a budget studying halfway around the world can fly home for a visit between semesters.
In fact, today nearly everyone is a "jet-setter," a term once reserved for the wealthy few. In the past three decades, seat costs per mile have shrunk to a point where most Americans can afford to fly. And they do. It's estimated that 80 percent of Americans older than 16 have flown at least once. It's a worldwide phenomenon, too: Half of the 2 million Muslim pilgrims making the hajj to Mecca each year arrive by air.
Along with TV, "the airplane has fundamentally altered how we understand ourselves and our relationship to the earth," Professor Miller says. Both technologies "homogenized the culture. They made the society appear to be physically and perhaps mentally much closer together."
Air freight companies like FedEx count on jet speeds to fill consumer desires for quick delivery, whether sending live Maine lobsters to Nebraska, Chilean sea bass to Boston, or ensuring that a Lands' End sweater ordered on the Internet arrives the next day. Airplanes have allowed aid to reach remote areas of the world quickly, where people were suffering from famine, disease, or natural disasters.
The need to solve problems in aeronautics has also driven the development of other technologies, from new materials to electronics, computing, and machine tools. And the airplane has affected the way other products are designed. The 1950s and '60s saw everything from buildings to home appliances mimic the streamlined shapes of jet aircraft, considered to be the very symbols of modernity.
Still, not every effect of the jet age has been salutary. For instance, airline travel helped to spread last year's SARS epidemic, whose movement around the globe could be traced by following airline routes. Perhaps most important, the airplane has revolutionized warfare.
"It created a frontless war, a war that could be waged from a distance, rather than up close and personal," says Janet Bednarek, who teaches a course on the history of aviation at University of Dayton in Ohio.
Despite the Wrights' naive belief that airplanes would help prevent wars by becoming eyes in the sky against surprise attacks, it took little more than a decade for their invention to make a significant impact on World War I.
But it was World War II that "made it clear that air forces were going to be powerful shapers of military strategy ... and consumers of military budgets," Miller says. Today, "the gee-whiz [aviation] stuff of the Iraqi war is really predicated on that very early understanding that if you could put human beings above the ground, they could do great damage to the ground."
The rise of commercial air travel was also a post-World War II phenomenon. Scheduled passenger service in the US had begun before Pearl Harbor in propeller-driven airliners like the DC-3. Cruising at 11,000 feet in good weather, the scenery could be spectacular. And while it might take a day or more to cross the continent, service for the lucky few on board rivaled that of a luxury ocean liner. By 1951, more Americans took planes than long-distance trains. By 1957, planes whisked more passengers across the Atlantic than ocean liners.
But constant vibration from the propellers and, much worse, the occasional white-knuckle flight through a thunderstorm made propeller-plane travel more of an adventure than many people desired. The widespread introduction of commercial jets in the 1960s revolutionized passenger travel. Speeds doubled to nearly 600 m.p.h., and pressurized cabins allowed smoother flights at 35,000 feet or higher, flying above the weather. The arrival of the Boeing 747 "jumbo" jet in 1970, followed by other "wide bodies" like the DC-10, Lockheed, and Airbus A300, inaugurated the era of mass international air travel, leaping between continents and carrying three to four times the number of passengers of other airliners.
Despite the horrible nature of airline accidents, the numbers began to show that flying was the safest way to travel: Today, statistics suggest that on average a person could fly daily for about 900 years on an American commercial airliner before having an accident.
Supersonic travel once seemed to be the next logical step for commercial aviation. An American effort to build a supersonic airliner stalled in the 1970s. A British-French collaboration, the Concorde, which could cruise at 1,350 m.p.h. or about twice the speed of sound, did fly for decades. But that branch of the aviation family tree died out earlier this year when the last Concorde was grounded due to high operating costs and ongoing environmental concerns.
With ever-faster flying economically impractical, cheap tickets have trumped speed as the chief selling point for air travel.
The centennial of aviation finds the airline industry suffering hard times, buffeted by harsh economic winds and the effects of Sept. 11. The industry continues to lose billions of dollars and lay off thousands of employees. "If the Wright brothers were still alive, Orville would have to fire Wilbur," quipped one airline executive earlier this year in USA Today.
But forecasts still show continued increases in jet travel in the coming decades. In February, Singapore Airlines will begin a direct flight from Singapore to Los Angeles, 8,774 miles, the longest nonstop service ever in commercial aviation.
For these long hauls, "super jumbo" jets carrying 600 to 800 people are in the works. The European-made Airbus A380, which will carry a minimum of 550 passengers, is expected to enter service by 2006. It will be the largest aircraft in the world.
American manufacturer Boeing is counting on a different strategy. The 200-to 300-seat 7E7, which it hopes to begin selling in 2008, aims for better fuel efficiency and an improved flight experience.
It will feature larger lavatories and luggage bins, as well as electronic "window shades" whose transparency passengers can change during the flight. These big windows - 19 inches high and 11 inches wide, larger than those on any current commercial airplane - will allow passengers to see more from the plane, including the horizon, helping to reconnect them to the actual experience of flight.
While some, like Airbus, think big (a 1,000-seater someday?), other industry watchers argue small will be beautiful. For instance, a new generation of five- to six-passenger jets selling for less than $1 million will be launched next year, says Ray Mundy, a professor of transportation studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Entrepreneurs, he says, may use them to create "taxi charters" that will allow customers to travel from small airports closer to their homes, avoiding long waits at major airports while offering prices competitive with today's cut-rate carriers. If this happens, he says, today's rush to build ever bigger "hub" airports may look as foolish as the giant railroad stations of the early 20th century, many of which have been converted into shopping malls.
While some argue that the Internet and teleconferencing reduce the demand for air travel, Professor Mundy says the web will "increase our thirst for more travel" as low cost and even better safety measures are introduced.
Today, he says, the Cirrus, a small propeller plane that sells for less than $250,000, is equipped with computer systems that equal those of commercial jets, including an auto pilot. In fact, the Cirrus does the big jets one better: If its engine fails, the plane can float to earth on a parachute. In the next 100 years, Mundy says, flying "will have an even greater impact on society as we travel to other parts of the world as if we were now traveling from one state to the next."
While Sept. 11 showed that "the very things that liberate us [the airplane] can destroy us," Miller says, air travel still contains the "wonderful hope" that it "will translate into a more harmonious globe, a more peaceful human society ... that as we know each other a little bit better, it becomes a little more difficult for us to kill each other."
The kingdom of the air continues to inspire. The National Air and Space Museum draws more than 10 million visitors a year, for example, making it the most-visited museum in the world, Dr. Crouch says. "They come because at some fundamental, even unconscious level, we make them feel good to be human."
Visitors walk in the door and the first thing they see is the Wrights' plane - "the real thing," he adds. Then they discover Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis," which made the first solo crossing of the Atlantic; the X-1, the early jet that Chuck Yeager used to plow through the sound barrier in 1947; and the Apollo space capsule that brought the first astronauts back from the moon in 1969.
"Visitors say, 'Wow. Creatures like me, people like me, did that!' " he says.
National Park Service ranger Whit Pennington ducks under a full-scale replica of the Wright brothers' airplane at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Suddenly, visitors hear a loud clunk. That, he says, was the sound made when a restraining cable was released on Dec. 17, 1903, just before the Wrights' plane rolled down a 60-feet monorail and leapt into history: It was the last sound heard in the era before manned flight.
Also set free by that first flight - just 120 feet and 12 seconds with Orville aboard and steering by shifting his weight - was a burst of airborne innovation. After Wilbur and Orville Wright flew, people said, "Gosh, if [they] can do that, what can't we do?" says Tom Crouch, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. A mere 66 years later, humans would land on the moon.
Yes, people had been aloft before: clinging to kites and gliders and swept along by hot-air balloons. But this was something different: Wilbur and Orville had control over where they went. "What the Wrights did that nobody else had done was to fly as a bird flies," says James Tobin, author of "To Conquer the Air," "which means to take off where you want to ... and control your flight...."
It was an enormous achievement. But beyond that, historians point to two qualities about these bicycle-shop owners from Dayton, Ohio, that give them such enduring appeal. One is that they were amateurs, working without any government or corporate help. The Smithsonian Institution was backing well-respected scientist Samuel Langley in his efforts to create a flying machine. Despite getting $70,000 in research grants, he failed to fly only days before the Wrights succeeded. The Wrights, however, spent less than $1,000 to develop their plane.
"It's part of the appeal of their story," Mr. Tobin says. "It gives all of us the sense ... that we can create some extraordinary breakthrough ... out in our garage."
Their research methods and persistence also win admirers. Though they lacked high school diplomas, the Wrights were natural scientists. "They hit many setbacks along the way but kept going," Tobin says.
"They were engineering geniuses," adds Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian at the University of Dayton.
The centennial of their accomplishments will be celebrated with five days of events at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. And on Dec. 17, Hollywood actor John Travolta, a licensed jet pilot, will fly his Boeing 707 as part of a flyover ceremony. Capping the events will be an attempt to duplicate the Wright brothers' flight in a replica of their airplane.
"You know, it's a marginal airplane; it was the first," historian Crouch says. "And things are going to have to be just right for [the replica to fly [Dec. 17]. But I have confidence."
1900 - Wilbur and Orville Wright fly first glider experiments in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
1903 - Wrights complete first powered flights at Kill Devil Hills.
1909 - Wrights sell first military plane to US Army. A French rival makes first flight across English Channel.
1914 - First commercial airline is founded in Florida and flies from St. Petersburg to Tampa in a Benoist flying boat. One-way fare: $5.
1914 - Air warfare begins in World War I. The Curtiss JN-4 two-seat biplane, or "Jenny," was used to train pilots. Later, it was used in stunts.
1918 - US Post Office begins airmail service.
1923 - First nonstop coast-to-coast flight, between New York and San Diego, takes nearly 27 hours.
1927 - Charles Lindbergh flies solo across Atlantic Ocean in the Spirit of St. Louis.
1932 - Amelia Earhart becomes first woman to fly solo across Atlantic.
1935 - First air-traffic control center opens. Also, first Douglas DC-3 takes flight. By 1944, it accounted for 90 percent of world's commercial flights.
1939 - Pan American starts transatlantic service.
1941 - Japanese planes are launched from aircraft carriers in a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor.
1942 - The first American turbojet, Bell XP-59A Airacomet, takes flight.
1945 - The B-29 Enola Gay drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
1947 - Capt. Chuck Yeager flies the rocket-powered Bell X-1 faster than speed of sound.
1957 - A jet flies around the world for the first time.
1962 - Maj. Robert White flies to 314,750 feet, setting an altitude record.
1970 - First commercial flight of a Boeing 747 (Pan Am) flies between London and New York. The supersonic Concorde begins regular test flights with passengers.
1976 - Capt. Eldon Joersz sets a speed record of 2,193 m.p.h. (ground speed).
1986 - Richard Rutan and Jeana Yeager fly longest nonstop flight without refueling, 24,987 miles, using the Voyager aircraft.
2001 - Airplanes are used as terrorist missiles in attacks on New York and Washington.
2003 - Concorde flights, considered too costly, are ended.
Aviation History On-line Museum, Encyclopediabritanica.com, KnoxNews, National Aeronautic Association, Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, www.aerofiles.com.