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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?

The airplane will look like a Wright Flyer, and will have most of its flight characteristics. It will be, Culick says, “not what you’d call a safe plane, but not as unsafe as the Wrights found out themselves.”

Today, the original 1903 Wright Flyer floats silently above the entry of the National Air and Space Museum keeping its secrets. The white muslin-covered wings and fragile-looking wooden spars barely seem to support the mannequin lying on the lower wing. Millions of visitors have looked at this symbol of craftsmanship, courage, and ingenuity with admiration and awe.

But Ken Hyde, Rick Young, and the engineers of AIAA see instead a confusing puzzle of wrong fittings, misplaced nail holes, uneven struts, a faulty elevator, and two-piece wing ribs. The questions that it raises are maddening. We know that it flew, but the details are a mystery that may never be solved. Perhaps that is the best monument to the genius of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

 


Sidebar: More Flyers

To celebrate the centennial of powered flight next year, more than 25 Wright Flyer replicas, built to varying degrees of accuracy and airworthiness, will be hung in lobbies and paraded through towns. A select few will even fly with some brave pilot in the hip cradle.

Master woodworker and pilot Nick Engler of West Milton, Ohio, re-created all of the Wrights’ gliders under the auspices of his nonprofit business, the Wright Aeroplane Company, before attempting the 1903 Flyer this year. He’s also working on a reproduction of the 1905 model. He plans to fly all the aircraft at an airshow in Dayton, Ohio, in July.

In a piece of derringdo that the Wrights would have admired, Lieutenant Commander Klas Ohman, a pilot for the U.S. Navy, will fly Engler’s 1903 replica off the deck of the USS Kitty Hawk in Tokyo harbor this winter. The aircraft carrier will be underway to simulate the wind conditions that the original needed in order to fly.

Dana Smith, a pilot and restorer in Limerick, Maine, who ran an aviation maintenance technicians school for 25 years, bypassed the 1903 aircraft for what he calls “safer, more stable” designs. He has been flying his replica of a Wrights’ 1909 airplane for four years and has built three other models, including the Wright Model R, which in 1910 could fly 70 mph. He will fly several this May at the Festival of Flight in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

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