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 3 of 7)
Although Young is proud of his ribs, he’s even more pleased with the process of discovery that led to their design. “Partnering on a problem is the purest way to a solution,” he says, waving his arm toward the Flyer as Taylor adjusts a fitting on the elevator assembly. “Three people become the tyranny of the majority. But two people will battle it out until the answer emerges. I think Orville—I mean Grover—would agree,” he says, then blushes at his slip of the tongue.
In the office above his spacious hangar in Warrenton, Virginia, Ken Hyde pulls on a pair of white cotton gloves and reaches inside a small cardboard box for a plastic bag. He is a thin man, stooping over as he gently removes a bundle of fabric and spreads it on a table. “It was used for ladies’ undergarments,” he explains, reverently unfolding the yellowed muslin. What Hyde has in the plastic bag is a four-foot length from the lower left wing of the original Flyer. He’s got two more in storage, relics from the days after Orville’s death when Wright family descendants spread out the fabric on the living room floor in Dayton and cut it up for their inheritance. Hyde winces as he mentions the cutting.
Hyde’s dream team of builders is the one against which all others are being measured, not only because Hyde won the contract to fly at Kitty Hawk for the centennial, or because Ford Motor Company and the Experimental Aircraft Association put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it, but also because the deep-pocketed backers believe the Wright Experience is building the most accurate Flyer possible.
Hyde is as calm as Rick Young is energetic. He speaks with a genteel Southern drawl, as smoothly as you would expect from a former airline captain who has become used to hanging out with corporate bigwigs. His bearing as he stands erect turns his pressed khakis and denim shirt into a uniform. When he gets really excited he might lean forward a bit and lift his eyebrows. He does this when he talks about the Wrights’ engineering achievements.
“At the wind tunnel experiments, the Wrights were no longer lucky bicycle mechanics; they were scientists,” he says, choosing a sample from among a brace of tiny airfoil designs. He places it on a set of wires in a small wooden wind tunnel similar to the ones the Wrights used and turns on the fan. He smiles as the little piece of tin lifts.
Ken Hyde, like most people who have studied the Wrights’ work closely, does not buy into the conventional wisdom that the brothers’ relied heavily on the research of Octave Chanute and Samuel Pierpont Langley to achieve success. Hyde’s extensive engineering tests show that the Wrights used their own data to conquer controlled powered flight. Their discoveries remain the bedrock of accepted aeronautical formulas and parameters, even today.
“I call this the ‘last chance,’ ” he says. “There are people still alive who sat at the dinner table with the Wrights or flew at their school. We’re getting with them to tell the story of the Wrights as engineers and scientists, and the technical data is matching up.”
Hyde’s Flyer is spectacular. Actually, there are two that face each other in the hangar. Their giant wooden skeletons glow as if they had been patiently hand waxed. The first, the EAA’s airplane, will fly at the Kitty Hawk centennial after being wind-tunnel-tested relentlessly to measure its lift and drag. The second belongs to Harry Combs, former president of Learjet and co-author of a biography on the Wrights. His airplane will be displayed at the Kitty Hawk museum.