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Aviation Fans Fly Hopes for Wright Museum

Aviation enthusiasts want a museum of early aviation in the French town of Pau, where the Wright brothers created the world's first flying school and hundreds of Americans qualified as fighter pilots during World War I.

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Orville Wright at the controls of the plane as his brother Wilbur looks on

Amanda Wright Lane, great-grand-niece of Orville and Wilbur -- her great-grandfather Lorin Wright was an elder brother -- visited the airfield last week to discuss the project. Wright Lane and her brother Stephen Wright run the Wright Family foundation in Ohio, which disburses royalties collected on the Wright name.

"France is the first place where the world really understood the Wrights could fly ... it's a part of history," she told AFP, adding she could not make a commitment to contribute funds to the project before consulting her brother.

A derelict World War I era iron and glass hangar put up by the company that built the Eiffel Tower now stands where Orville and Wilbur taught three French pupils to fly. Wright Lane was visibly moved by its state with its shattered glass, rusting iron, and brambles growing inside.

Its condition was so dangerous that Lieutenant Colonel Serge Contreras, second-in-command of the paratroop school which now operates there, forbade the visitors from entering it.

The plan, said Paul Mirat, author of a book on the history of flying in Pau, is to move the hangar to the end of the military runway and restore it. "That would cost 1.5 million euros ($1.8 million)," he said, adding: "This is the last example of an Eiffel building."

"France has a huge opportunity"

"I think France has a huge opportunity," Wright Lane said. "You can absolutely save these things."

She also saw a plaque depicting the Wright brothers and their "flyer", which commemorates the opening of their flying school. It is surmounted by the US and French flags, as well as the two-cow flag of the Bearn region, of which Pau is the capital.

Another visit was to a small chapel, maintained by volunteers, commemorating local fliers who died, the first in 1912. It is decorated with broken propellers and other mementos from crashed planes. The chaplain, Pierre Leborgne, pointedly said some of those could be moved into a museum.

World's biggest flying school during WWI

Testflug der Gebrüder Wright

Wilbur Wright test flies a glider in 1902 at Kitty Hawk, N. C., in this photograph from the Special Collections and Archives in the Dunbar Library at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

The Wright brothers visited Europe because the US Army initially showed little interest in buying their planes after their first flight on December 17, 1903.

In France, the brothers signed a contract with a consortium of businessmen who wanted to buy 10 aircraft, but which had two conditions: that they fly twice for more than two hours with a passenger, which they did at Le Mans, in west-central France, in November 1908, and that they teach three Frenchmen to fly, which they did at Pau in January 1909.

As World War I got under way, but with the United States still neutral, Norman Prince, an American living in Pau, formed, along with Edmund Gros, the head of the American ambulance service, an American squadron which became known as the Escadrille Lafayette.

Those pilots, who all learned to fly at Pau, fought the Germans over France and included Eugene Bullard, the son of a former slave who became the world's first black combat pilot, and who had earlier served with distinction in the French army.

The Pau airfield became the world's biggest flying school during World War I, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, but which America did not enter until 1917. "Those trainees included 800 to 1,000 Americans," Mirat said.

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