Viewport: Original Casting
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, July 2001
A few months ago I visited Ken Hyde's enterprise, The Wright Experience, near Warrenton, Virginia. Hyde and his staff restore and replicate historic aircraft and are currently under contract to the Experimental Aircraft Association to create a reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer, which they plan to fly on December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the original flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Hyde and his staff do meticulous research to ensure accuracy. Even the manufacturing methods adhere as much as possible to those used originally. With the help of Tom Crouch and Peter Jakab of the National Air and Space Museum, Hyde's group has assembled one of the finest collections of Wright brothers material in existence.
Here's just one example of how closely their work replicated history: Recently Hyde was testing an original Wright inline, four-cylinder engine (serial number 20, not the one used on the 1903 Flyer) with a wooden club in place of the propeller the Wrights used to absorb the engine's power. The club was a simple five-foot stick of maple bolted to the propeller shaft. But when the engine was run, the shaft screwed itself into the club and cracked it. A check of the Wrights' records revealed that the brothers had experienced the same problem. Hyde modified the club, and during my visit I was privileged to watch the start-up and running of this original engine. (You can hear it on www.wrightexperience.com .)
Engine no. 20 had powered a floatplane that flipped on landing and sank. Hyde acquired it in good condition from the grandson of the owner of a warehouse where it had been stored. Rather than risk damaging it on a flight, he decided to make a copy. All went well until it came time to cast the aluminum crankcase. Every foundry encountered the same problem: "termites," which are small air bubbles or voids in the aluminum. This kind of casting had become a lost art over the years, but the crankcase is such a vital part of the engine that the team couldn't proceed until they solved the problem.
About two months later, the Aluminum Company of America held an evening event at the Museum to honor some ALCOA employees. I was seated next to Alain Belda, chairman and chief executive officer. During the course of the evening I mentioned the difficulty Hyde was having trying to case a new crankcase. Belda told me there was no metallurgical problem ALCOA couldn't solve and offered his help. I called Hyde the next day with the news, and the casting project is under way.
Talk about serendipity. But it gets better.
The 1949 Engineering Club of Dayton newsletter describing the original Wright engine had this to say about the casting: "The crankcase was made of the then new material aluminum, which was supplied by the parent organization of what is now The Aluminum Company of America, and cast by the Hoban Bros. Foundry in Dayton."
How fitting that the ALCOA has reentered the picture at such a critical juncture in Ken Hyde's project. And when the crankcase is complete, it can be said to be a truly original casting.