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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?

“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.

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.

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