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In Search of the Real Wright Flyer

Building a replica of the first airplane requires a certain resourcefulness. Anybody got any horsehide glue?

“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.

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.

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