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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?

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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.

Like the Wrights, Kellett first built and flew replicas of the 1900 and 1902 Wright gliders. That training is important to success in the Flyer, says Rick Young, who has built and flown reproductions of every Wright glider. “There are things that you wouldn’t discover on a simulator because you don’t have the static and inertia component…of attitudes and acceleration.” In simpler words, you’re not really moving when you’re in the simulator chair. Hyde’s team will also train on his 1902 glider. “That’s where the Wrights got all their training from, and there’s really no substitute,” he says.

Kellett now builds and restores airplanes for Kermit Weeks’ Fantasy of Flight Museum in Polk City, Florida. He spent nearly a year and $3,000 building his Flyer in the mid-1970s. The main challenge in creating an accurate reproduction, he remembers, was to make the thing as rough as the original. “Ken Hyde does exquisite work,” Kellett says. “But the undercarriage nails on the original are hammered over on the backside. I want to see him do that, bang a nail through there and smash it flat on the other side. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I can’t make an airplane that crude. People would slam my work.”

Kellett built his two-part ribs according to the blueprints because he hadn’t seen Orville’s sketch. He dismisses the wing rib as the least interesting problem the airplane poses. He found something else to obsess about. “Everyone wants to take one tiny thing and microscope it,” he says. “My microscope was on the canard assembly.” The two-surface elevator on the front of the Flyer “physically will not take the movement it is supposed to do,” he found. “The geometry doesn’t work.” Kellett’s elevator “binds up,” he says, instead of moving smoothly. In 1985, Kellett was invited to visit the National Air and Space Museum during its conservation of the 1903 Flyer. He manipulated the original elevator controls, he says, and found that they bound up the same way.

Wright experts don’t consider Kellett’s Flyer absolutely accurate because he made modifications to the airframe and his engine is lighter and more powerful than the original. Kellett argues that the modifications fall into the gray area every builder will have to negotiate, and that between his greater body weight and his running the engine at lower rpm, he came close to matching the Flyer performance. Accurate or not, Kellett has logged 23 flights in his, for a total of four minutes (the Wrights had just over a minute between them). “This plane is unstable,” he warns. “Once it comes off the track, it’s going to do what it wants to do.”

Fred Culick agrees, and as the first pilot in line to fly the AIAA model, he’s taking steps to minimize the risk. The AIAA team has studied data from wind tunnel tests of two subscale models built in 1980 and a full-scale airframe replica built in 1999. The team won’t fly that one, however. “The airplane is very seriously unstable in pitch and roll, very unstable directionally,” Culick says. “Well, we’re making a few changes.”

Jack Cherne, a longtime aerospace engineer and the AIAA Wright project director, explains that the team is changing the airfoil shape slightly, and adding more power in response to the wind tunnel results. The 40-horsepower engine contrasts sharply with the 10 to 12 horsepower that the Wrights’ engine generated, so they must beef up the airframe. “We’re making sure the plane can handle the added power,” Cherne says.

The AIAA team isn’t bothered by the accuracy of details. The members are not obsessing about horsepower, or finding the definitive strut placement or determining the exact bracket weight. “Those aren’t the problems the Wrights were obsessed with,” says Culick. They wanted to get an airplane into the air and fly it, he says, and that is exactly what AIAA plans to do.

Cherne points out that the team hopes to fly its Flyer regularly at airshows. “The idea is to give the impressions of the first flight,” Culick says. “Take off, fly low, land safely, don’t bust the airplane. For that you’re not going to worry about a quarterinch on the length of a strut.”

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