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Mon, Dec 22, 2003

Three Generation Thomas Team Re-enacts First Flight

Family Commemorates Century Of Flight With Their Own Short Hop

By ANN Correspondent Rose Dorcey

It wasn't a 1903 Wright Flyer, and it wasn't on the sandy dunes of Kitty Hawk (NC), but to a family trio from Madison (WI), it was close enough.

Tom Thomas, father, grandfather, and pilot in command of the UW Flying Club's Cessna 172 used to recreate the 12 second flight, said December 17, 2003, started out on a positive note when his 3-year-old granddaughter, Emma Soderholm, called him at 6:00 a.m. (with mom's help dialing the number) to wish him a "Happy Century of Flight" day.

Shortly afterward, Thomas called Dan Hoke, Tower Supervisor at Dane County Regional Airport (KMSN). Thomas told Hoke of his plan to fly Emma and daughter Stephanie Kirchner, an Airport Operations Supervisor at DCRA, on a historic mission to recreate the famous 12 second, 120 foot first flight of the Wright Brothers, precisely 100 years later - right to the minute. Hoke, who had watched a Wright Brothers program the night before, approved the flight, traffic permitting. That's where the good luck ended for the Thomas clan.

"When the Cessna 182 that I initially scheduled back in June wouldn't start, we needed a back-up plan," said Thomas. "The 182 was pre-flighted and ready to go by 0845, but it wouldn't fire off. At 0915, closing in on the 0935 local time/1035 EST deadline, I asked Stephie to go into the office for the keys to the 172 and start the pre-flight. If she hadn't been there, we would never have made the 0935 window. She saved the day."

"The 12 second flight finally took off, and landed, at the specified time. The tower people commented, 'Wow, that wasn't a very long flight' as we taxied off the runway. I'm sure we went more than 180 feet in our 12 seconds, maybe 13 or 14 seconds with the 172 floating, but it didn't take long at all. That was the amazing part. I would have liked to have done the four follow-on flights (of the Wright Brothers) in sequence, timing wise, but it wasn't in the cards."

Thomas, an Aviation Education and Management Section Chief for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's Bureau of Aeronautics, has been flying since 1965 is a former Air Force pilot. He once landed a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser in 1400 feet of runway at the now-closed airport in Dodgeville (WI), where the plane sits on display at a roadside inn. He and his wife Jeanne are parents of 5 daughters and grandparents of 8. He said the flight would settle in as one of the more fun moments in their lives. "Emma was a gem. She loves airplanes and horses. When she grows up, she wants to be a pilot."

Dressed in an airplane t-shirt she got at Oshkosh AirVenture 2003, a smiling Emma said of the flight, "It was really fun. My cousin Anna was really sad because she couldn't come along. Let's do it again."

As the aviators reflected on their mission over a cup of hot chocolate at the on-field Jet Room Restaurant, Thomas gave credit to the professional tower staff and the Wright Brothers themselves. "We couldn't have done it without the support of the best ATC in the country. It seemed easy, but hurdles were thrown up at about every turn. We persisted, and it came about."

"I think the Wright Brothers were smiling as they looked down upon us or rode on our wings as we accelerated down the runway. Maybe they were instrumental in helping us get over the hurdles that kept popping up."

FMI: www.co.dane.wi.us/airport

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