In Search of the Real Wright Flyer
Building a replica of the first airplane requires a certain resourcefulness. Anybody got any horsehide glue?
- By Phaedra Hise
- Air & Space magazine, January 2003
Jeff Caplan/NASA Research Center
(Page 2 of 7)
“Take an issue like glues,” he explains earnestly. “The Wright brothers used horsehide glue. We could try to acquire that, but what’s more honest to the experience, getting the normal glue that’s right there, or going to the ends of the earth to get horsehide glue?” The Wrights relied on standard off-the-shelf materials, he says. “So use the everyday glue, stay on the normal scale rather than spend a fortune.”
Glue is an easy problem to solve. At a table next to the Flyer, Young unrolls a set of blueprints the National Air and Space Museum made as part of a Flyer conservation project in 1985. Here, the real problems begin.
“If you followed these blueprints, you’d end up with a reproduction of a reconstruction, and I doubt it would fly,” he says, pointing to a cross-section drawing of the wing.
“There’s hardly a place where the numbers are not wrong in some significant way. Strut placement, places on fittings where distances don’t add up to the total, measurements from a detail that don’t fit measurements on the layout.” When Orville put the airplane back together, Young believes, he knew it was only for display and therefore focused on appearances rather than accuracy. One of the most problematic structures is the wing rib.
There are 76 ribs, each one shaped like an eyebrow. For each wing, 38 eyebrows line up in a row, and a long, thin wooden spar slides through the wing’s blunt leading edge. Another spar slides through the wing about twothirds of the way back, toward the tapering edge. Fabric stretches across the whole structure to form the airfoil.
Although Orville and Wilbur left many letters about and photographs of the airplane, there is only one description of the rib, and it does not match the ones on the National Air and Space Museum’s Flyer.
In Orville’s sketch, each rib is made from two long strips of wood, held together with small blocks. But on the Flyer hanging in the Smithsonian, each of the ribs is cut into two pieces—one larger piece forward of the rear spar, and one smaller, tapering piece aft of the rear spar. Small pieces of steel hold the two pieces together to form a single rib that fits across the spar.
“It’s wrong,” Young frowns as he punches keys on his laptop computer and calls up a copy of Orville’s letter with the rib drawing. “Orville said that it was a single piece of ash. Why would you cut it into two pieces? It makes no sense.” Young believes that all of the ribs were broken when the airplane tumbled, and that in the reconstruction, Orville stuck the rear pieces back on by connecting them with the spring steel. Rather than re-create the apparent repair, Young’s replica defers to Orville’s original sketch, with one-piece ribs made by splitting lengthwise single pieces of ash, each one then carefully fitted onto and slid into place along the two spars.