Feeding the Media Machine for the 100th Anniversary of Flight

Today marks 110 years since Orville Wright flew at 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 17, 1903, on a sandy beach dune in North Carolina. The two bicycle-building brothers from Dayton, Ohio, fired up a four-cylinder engine and embarked on the first manned, sustained, powered flight.

Orville’s initial ascent lasted about 12 seconds and spanned an estimated 120 feet. The now iconic photo shot that day by John T. Daniels of the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station arguably is aviation’s most famous image.

That photo played a critical role in the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Countdown to Kitty Hawk re-creation of the event in 2003, which drew millions of viewers on C-SPAN, network TV and online even before the social media age. Led by 1903 Wright flyer master-builder Ken Hyde, The Wright Experience team poured through Daniels’ photos and other artifacts for clues on how the Wright brothers did it.

A national tour lets thousands see the flyer reproduction

Unlike the Wrights, Hyde’s team had the opportunity to test their flyer reproduction for two weeks in February 2003 at Old Dominion University’s Langley Full-Scale Tunnel in Hampton, Va., before embarking on a national tour.

Led by EAA, presented by Ford Motor Company and supported by Microsoft Flight Simulator, Eclipse Aviation and Northrop Grumman Corporation, Countdown to Kitty Hawk traveled to six additional sites in 2003 before the First Flight Centennial Celebration at Wright Brothers National Memorial.

The 24,000-square-foot traveling pavilion included historical perspectives, interactive displays, kids’ activities and the 2003 limited Lincoln Aviator Kitty Hawk Edition by Ford.

Above is a photo at the unveiling of the Wright Flyer reproduction at a media event held in the spring of 2003 in Washington, D.C.

See photos. Read articles. Learn about the people and team behind EAA’s Countdown to Kitty Hawk at www.countdowntokittyhawk.org.

About my role managing media and clients’ expectations

As a PR consultant for EAA’s Countdown to Kitty Hawk, I served as the day-to-day media relations lead fielding media inquiries from domestic and international journalists, scripting key messages, creating media kits, writing speeches, drafting media alerts and updating news releases. 

I coordinated countless interviews with print, radio, TV and wire reporters. I stayed in the background, prepping reporters and my clients to serve as official spokespeople. I also closely tracked media coverage to ensure accurate and consistent messages.

Our Countdown to Kitty Hawk media relations team did a little bit of everything, from making sure journalists had Internet and phone service to scouting out vacation homes our clients could rent during their December 2013 stays.

Each of EAA’s sponsors also had their own PR agencies and internal corporate clients, which created a large communications and media relations team. Plus, EAA, based in Oshkosh, Wis., had its own media relations and communications team to connect with its nearly 180,000 aviation enthusiast members around the world.

From a sponsorship standpoint, each organization had invested people, time, resources and dollars to maximize their visibility and involvement with the Centennial of Flight.

Adding to the complexity, my firm at the time, Carter Ryley Thomas PR (now CRT/tanaka), also had a separate federal contract with the U.S. First Flight Centennial Commission and provided consulting services to the North Carolina First Flight Centennial Commission. Our firm had a talented team of PR pros who worked closely together to represent all of our clients’ best interests.

The 12- to 16-hour days on tour were the easiest part of my job. Managing client expectations and working to exceed them in a constantly changing environment with dozens of players and personalities was the toughest.

EAA’s leadership role

Fortunately, our main client, Tom Poberezny, past president of EAA and long-term chairman of the annual Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In and Convention in Oshkosh, served as a member of the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. This six‐person board, empowered by Congress, coordinated and publicized America’s commemoration of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.

Poberezny and his team were exceptional. Their passion and energy for aviation were infectious. Anyone with an interest in aviation should consider joining. The events, information and articles in their member publications alone are worth the nominal annual fee.

I also encourage all of my aviation friends to visit Oshkosh and experience EAA’s AirVenture firsthand. The event just celebrated its 60th anniversary as an international gathering place for aviation enthusiasts. Learn more at www.airventure.org.

In addition to the First Flight Centennial in 2003, my tour stops to Ford Motor Company’s 100th anniversary celebration in Dearborn was quite memorable. Ford displayed 100 cars, one for each year it had been in business. Few people realized the friendship shared by Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers as 1903 was a transformative year for all three visionaries.

Jonathan Rhudy, APR, is no stranger to unique transportation. His first job after graduating from James Madison University in 1995 was driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile as a spokesperson. Connect with him on Twitter @jonathan_rhudy.