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 4 of 7)
Hyde has spent months reverse-engineering the Flyer’s engine and airframe from photographs, letters, and blueprints. But he has one additional source—an impressive collection of original artifacts. These came in handy in replicating the propellers, for example. The only detailed drawings that exist are for the 1911 propellers, which the Wrights planned to mass-produce. To reproduce the props of earlier models, Hyde relied on originals loaned by the National Park Service station at Kitty Hawk, and Marianne Hudec, a niece of the Wrights. He computer-scanned the undamaged half of the 1903 propeller and created its opposite blade to make a digital model for testing as well as a template for carving a duplicate.
Then one fortunate day, Larry Parks, an expert on antique woodworking hand tools and techniques, read about Hyde in the Washington Post. He got on his motorcycle and rode from his home in Warrenton, Virginia, to Hyde’s shop to offer his services. In no time Parks had glued up some layers of spruce to make a laminated blank for Hyde. Then he finished it off with a hatchet, spokeshave, plane, draw knife, and gouge. He was able to fit his tools into marks on the original propeller fragment and determine that a no. 2 gouge had done the bulk of the shaping, peeling off luxuriously long ringlets of blonde wood as it sliced into the spruce.
But Hyde doesn’t have an original 1903 wing rib, so he puzzled somewhat over the mystery of the two-piece design.
“That spring steel is really a screw up,” he concluded. His wind tunnel tests on scale models convinced him that the original spar for the one-piece rib, as drawn in Orville’s letter, was too small to support the wing. Hyde believes the brothers recognized that problem at Kitty Hawk, then made a last-minute adjustment without documenting it. They made a bigger spar, he believes, then chopped each rib open and reattached the two sections to the spar with the steel. “Some historians will jump up and down and say ‘untrue,’ ” Hyde says. “But we tested the fabric and there is metal rubbing, which shows [the steel straps] were there on the day they flew in 1903.” Never mind that the steel makes for a less-flexible wing, or that it’s clearly a bad design on what everyone agrees is an unstable airplane, or even that the Wrights themselves used a one-piece rib on all later aircraft. In the interest of accuracy, Hyde says, he’s using the steel. “We re-create the mistake.”
Once historians get into this minute a level of detail, it’s difficult for them to set limits for themselves. After examining the National Air and Space Museum Flyer, Hyde is convinced that Orville’s reconstruction job holds a secret message, one that seems to support Rick Young’s one-piece-rib theory. “[Orville] was very careful to put different kinds of wood in the repairs,” Hyde says. “In the blueprints, in some ribs you’ll see spruce in front, ash in middle, and spruce in back. He was saying, ‘This is not original.’ ” Hyde doesn’t like to be called obsessed, but the fact is that no average aircraft home-builder could create this airplane.
And therein lies another discrepancy. Hyde’s work is pristine, but the Wrights’ airplane was surprisingly crude. It was built quickly during the Victorian era, when manufacturing standards for many of the off-the-shelf materials the Wrights used were somewhat lax. The fabric, for example, contains threads with large differences in diameter. Since most modern fabrics use more uniform threads on today’s high-speed machinery, it’s almost impossible to replicate the coarser material the Wrights used. The fabric was not “doped,” or coated with paint or other smoothing and stiffening agents, so the weave’s characteristics and permeability are key to the airplane’s performance. And yet, to be absolutely accurate, a replica must be found. It is one of those myriad missing details that worries Hyde, Rick Young, and the AIAA team as well.
Lest someone forget that the centennial is, after all, about flight, one team is building a reminder. “The Wrights set out to build an airplane that would fly,” says AIAA project engineer Fred Culick, a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “You can agonize over the details but nobody will ever know, so you might as well guess and build it the way it ought to be built.” In other words, for this group, it’s not a matter of producing the most accurate airframe, but making it capable of taking to the air, and safely.
It’s no small matter. According to the handful of pilots who have flown one, the flight characteristics of the Flyer are very squirrelly. The airplane is unstable and ultra-sensitive to pitch changes. “You fly it enough and you’re going to break your neck,” warns Ken Kellett, one of the few pilots aside from the Wrights who have made and flown a 1903 Flyer. He built his when he was 23 and living in Colorado, and he finished it just in time to fly it at Kitty Hawk in 1978 for the 75th anniversary of controlled, powered flight. He flew it at Kitty Hawk again for the 80th anniversary.