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News > Feature - Not silk, but modern composites: Wright brothers' first air cargo flight reenacted
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Then and now
A lookalike Wright B Flyer taxis at Rickenbacker International Airport near Columbus, Ohio, after completing a Oct. 2, 2010, reenactment of the world’s first cargo flight. The original flight took place Nov. 7, 1910, and was made by Wright Company pilot Phil Parmelee from Huffman Prairie Flying Field -- now part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base -- to Columbus. In the background are KC-135R tankers from the Ohio National Guard’s 121st Air Refueling Wing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Derek Kaufman)
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 Air Force Research Laboratory
Feature - Not silk, but modern composites: Wright brothers' first air cargo flight reenacted

Posted 10/7/2010   Updated 10/7/2010 Email story   Print story


by Amy Rollins
88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

10/7/2010 - WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio  -- Huffman Prairie Flying Field and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base celebrated another historic event on Oct. 2, 2010, as more than 100 people witnessed the centennial of the birth of the air cargo industry.

Stowed on board the replica Wright B Flyer? Not the 200 pounds of silk flown on Nov. 7, 1910, to a publicity-savvy dry-goods merchant in Columbus, Ohio.

Rather, the plane carried materials provided by the Air Force Research Laboratory that reflect Wright-Patterson's continued prominence in developing aerospace technologies. Wright-Patterson is home to AFRL and half of its 10 technical directorates.

An advanced ceramic composite cloth and three dragonfly-sized, concept micro air vehicle models were flown by pilots Mitchell Cary, an Aeronautical Systems Center engineer and president of Wright B Flyer Inc., and Richard Stepler from Huffman Prairie to Rickenbacker International Airport near Columbus -- with a brief, mid-trip stopover at the Madison County Airport near London, Ohio.

For the original flight, the Wrights hired Philip Parmelee to pilot the Wright B Flyer, though he had just two months of flying experience under his belt. Then again, seasoned pilots in those days were few. Mr. Parmelee flew solo, in near-zero air temperatures, wrapped like a mummy against the cold.

On Oct. 2 his descendants were on hand to witness the commemoration of his flight, in considerably less-frigid weather. The October date was chosen to avoid November's sometimes inclement conditions in Ohio.

On hand to join in on the celebration and witness the commemorative flight were Col. Richard "Duke" Hazdra, 88th Air Base Wing vice commander; Nicholas Georgeff, with the National Park Service's Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park; Wright brothers family members Amanda Wright Lane and Stephen Wright; Parmelee family members Philip McKeatchie and Lecia Lamphere and their families; and, David Whitaker with the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, one of the partners supporting the day's events.

"Huffman Prairie is where the Wright brothers invented and perfected their airplane," said Colonel Hazdra. "Wright-Patterson was really the first air depot to take aircraft from World War I to present day.

"We're excited to reenact the first commercial flight."

The colonel noted not even the Wright brothers could have envisioned the many applications of their invention, and he underscored the importance of air cargo to both military capabilities and international commerce.

Colonel Hazdra drew parallels between the importance of the day's cargo flight and the significance and impact of one of the most successful cargo-carrying operations, the Berlin Airlift, in 1946 through 1947 by the United States Air Force.

Joe Sciabica, executive director of the Air Force Research Laboratory, said during his remarks at Rickenbacker International Airport in Columbus, "Just as the Wright brothers established the technology that made the 20th century of flight possible, the technology being developed today by the Air Force Research Laboratory is opening the doors to new possibilities in the 21st century.

"One hundred years from now, when we celebrate the second centennial of the first air cargo flight, we'll look back at the aerospace industry and again be reminded that everything we do in our aerospace industry is linked to the vision of manned flight that the Wright brothers made a reality and to this first cargo flight," Mr. Sciabica said.

Tony Sculimbrene of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance noted that the 50th and 75th commemorations of the first air cargo flight carried silk, "but we broke with tradition and flew carbon fiber."

That proved to be a perfect match, said Dr. Allan Katz, senior program manager, ceramics branch AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate. The ceramics branch team members suggested that the ceramic cloth be used, as "it's today's technology in fabric form."

The advanced lightweight fabrics have superior strength and can endure very high temperatures making them desirable for many aerospace applications.

"The directorate has a history of working with fabrics, these being developed very prominently for aircraft," Doctor Katz said.

An irony of the day's events was remarked upon by Amanda Wright Lane, a descendant of the Wright brothers, who noted what a "happening time" 1910 was for the pair of inventors.

"The Wright brothers never thought the airplane would ever be capable of doing much with air cargo," she said.

The Parmelee descendants toured the National Museum of the United States Air Force the day before the celebration. Philip McKeatchie, grand-nephew of Philip Parmelee, said while touring the museum his family members marveled at the military aircraft that carried cargo and the role their ancestor had played in the air cargo industry.

The replica Wright B Flyer made its voyage at 10 a.m. sharp, taking off from Runway 23 at Wright-Patterson AFB.

The very next aircraft to be seen over the base and Huffman Prairie? A Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, the most modern cargo carrier there is.

Orville and Wilbur would be proud.

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