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100 years of the Wright stuff

By Ed Brock

Pilot examiner Bobby McSwiggan looked in his book on the history of aviation at the page on the Wright brother's famous flight that happened 100 years ago today.

"They flew 120 feet and that's the beginning of it," McSwiggan said.

"It" is powered flight, the technological accomplishment that has steadily made the world a relatively smaller place in the century since Wilbur and Orville Wright launched their flyer in the Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, N.C.

The national celebration of the Centennial of Flight will possibly include the flight of a replica Wright Flyer over those same hills. Locally, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport will host an event from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the airport's International Campus (formerly the Georgia International Convention Center) at 1902 Sullivan Road in College Park.

That event is free and will feature replicas of early Wright brothers' designs and other displays.

McSwiggan, 72, joined the Wright brothers' dream in 1955 after a conversation with an old high school friend. At the time he was a former paratrooper and Korean War veteran who liked motorcycles.

"(The friend) told me I would probably like to have an airplane," McSwiggan said. "I always liked that type of thing."

At first McSwiggan thought it would be much too expensive to buy an airplane, but he partnered up with another man and bought a small two-seat Luscomb trainer for about $850. It was a much simpler machine than the private aircraft parked in the hangars surrounding McSwiggan's trailer office at the Clayton County Airport at Tara Field in Hampton.

"It didn't have an electric system or a starter," McSwiggan said. "You had to start it by hand."

Within a few months McSwiggan had his private pilot's license and went on to a career in flying.

"I just traded one plane for another," McSwiggan said. "I was never without an airplane since the first one."

During the course of his flying career McSwiggan, who lives in Fayetteville, has been all around the country and in 1996 he set up his business Academy Airlines at Tara Field. Now he's helping to pass the tradition of flight on to a new generation of pilots like 22-year-old Jessica Spagnuolo, a student at Georgia Aviation and Technical College in Eastman.

Spagnuolo, who was taking her final test with McSwiggan on Tuesday, has been enrolled in the school since July and plans to eventually follow in the footsteps of her father, a pilot for Delta.

"It's going to be a long road," Spagnuolo said.

Getting her license now, on the 100th anniversary of flight, adds "a sense of occasion" to Spagnuolo's dream of flight that began when she was a 6-year-old child surrounded by airplanes.

Darryl Benton also grew up around airplanes. His father first introduced him to flying when he was young. "My father flew and used to take me flying when I was a kid," he said.

Now, Benton is a pilot himself and lives in the Mallard's Landing subdivision, an aviation neighborhood in Locust Grove with its own runway. He said his favorite part of flying his own plane is the "freedom to go where I want to go, when I want to go I don't have to deal with that airport hassle."

In his Cessna 172, he said the "sights from the air are just something else."

Mallard's Landing resident Ralph Sadner is a retired commercial airline pilot.

"I've been interested in aviation since I was a kid building model airplanes," he said. "I guess it's the freedom of being up there and seeing the countryside."

From building model airplanes, to becoming a mechanic and eventually a pilot, Sadner has his own Aeronca Champ and said he's been flying for 38 years.

"You can see a lot more from up there and appreciate it a lot more," he said.

Harry Frey, proprietor of Wright Brothers Enterprises of Covington, was busy Tuesday setting up the replicas for the Hartsfield-Jackson event. They include an 1878 "Bat" experimental helicopter, an 1899 experimental kite built by the brothers and, as a centerpiece, the full size replica of the 1902 glider.

"This is about as big as it gets," Frey said.

Frey said he's also excited to see what will happen with the flight of the replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer that has been assembled by the Virginia-based group headed by Ken Hyde. He went to see the replica this past weekend but he couldn't say how ready it was to fly because his specialty has been the 1902 glider.

"In terms of their aerodynamics and appearance they're very similar but really they're very different," Frey said.

Successful printers and bicycle builders, the Wrights were self-trained engineers who went through a succession of seven aircraft before building what would be the world's first practical flying machine.

Frey and Hyde both tried to make their replicas as accurate as possible but were hindered by the fact that the Wright brothers, suspicious of possible spies, did not make blueprints of their planes.

"There are basic dimensions listed in the Wright brothers' notebooks and diaries and I've worked off of them," Frey said.

Frey also had to work backwards from another replica built in 1934.

"It was the last machine that Orville Wright worked on," Frey said.

So far Frey's replica has flown unmanned for a short duration and while he plans to make a manned flight at some point he needs to accrue more spare parts first.

"It breaks just about every time you fly it," Frey said.

A cockpit simulator and Jet Star cockpit and fuselage will also be exhibited at the event.

"It is with great reverence and respect that we acknowledge and celebrate the pioneering feats and technological foresight of the Wright brothers," said Ben DeCosta, aviation general manger for Hartsfield-Jackson. "Their persistence made flight possible for mankind and air travel continues today because of these great men."

More than a dozen aviation-related organizations are scheduled to participate in the Hartsfield-Jackson event. Log on to www.atlanta-airport for more information.

The Associated Press and Daily Herald staff writer Michael Davis contributed to this article.