Local helps mark aviation anniversary

Published 9:59 pm Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Clanton man wants to draw more attention to Alabama’s role in the history of the aviation and aerospace industry.

Billy Singleton, a member of the Chilton County Airport Authority, helped spearhead a group to commemorate the centennial anniversary of powered flight in Alabama.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Orville Wright’s historic flight west of Montgomery, over what is now Maxwell Air Force Base. The Wright Model A was the first aircraft to include a new modification called a horizontal plane (located near the rear of the craft), which improved stability and handling. Records indicate the flight lasted approximately five minutes and 50 seconds.

“The Wright brothers were setting up a training school in Montgomery. They came here because of the warm weather and the flat farmland to fly,” Singleton said.

Although that historic flight was witnessed by only a handful of people, word soon began to spread. More than 3,000 people would come from Montgomery and surrounding communities to witness aviation history in the making. One of the first night flights of an airplane took place at the Wright brothers’ school.

The training of aviation cadets at Maxwell Air Force Base continued the tradition set into motion by the Wright brothers. In World War II, more than 100,000 cadets were trained at Maxwell.

“Today, Maxwell is continuing that education. They are basically the center of development for aerospace doctrine,” Singleton said.

Alabama is also home to Marshall Space Flight Center, which played an important role in developing the Saturn V rocket engine that powered the Apollo mission to the Moon.

Statewide, the aviation and aerospace industry employs more than 150,000 workers, Singleton said.

“The state of Alabama has such an interesting history in aviation and aerospace,” he said. “This is one of those positive things that citizens of the state should be proud of.”

Singleton partnered with Dr. John Eagerton, chief of the Aeronautics Bureau of the Alabama Department of Transportation, to organize a group of people from various aviation groups across the state. They recently met with Gov. Bob Riley for the signing of a proclamation designating March as Aviation and Aerospace Heritage Month in Alabama.

The group wants to establish an Aviation and Aerospace Heritage Trail, connecting many sites across the state.

“That would link all aviation museums on I-65, I-85 and 231,” Singleton explained.

Those who wish to celebrate this week’s aviation milestone may visit the Alabama Department of Archives and History Friday for an all-day symposium beginning at 9 a.m.

Saturday and Sunday is Thunder over Alabama at Maxwell AFB.

“Of course, the Thunderbirds will be there. It is a big show,” Singleton said.