The Wright brothers never trudged up these dunes barefoot. Bruce Weaver, Andy Torrington, and I are struggling to carry a glider up a sandy winding trail in Nags Head, North Carolina. A near-exact reproduction of a 1902 Wright aircraft, the glider rests on a four-wheel dolly with balloon tires. Andy is pulling and steering, Bruce is pushing, and I’m trying to keep tree branches from snagging the flexing wings while tip-toeing on hot sand spiked with underbrush. Barefoot is the best way to get up a hill of sand, but as the sun torches the tops of my feet, I start to appreciate the Wrights’ formality. When they conducted their flying experiments a fewmiles north, they wore shoes (not to mention wool suits and ties).
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The glider weighs around 120 pounds, but it feels heavier, and it’s bulky—302 square feet of yellowing cotton wings built just like the original: the same ash and spruce frame and weather-beaten, cross-stitched fabric. Constructed in 2003 by The Wright Experience, a group run by renowned Wright scholar/replica builder Ken Hyde, it’s the closest the team could get to the original. Sure, they used multiple twisted wires because the original single-strand hard wire breaks too quickly, and they added a harness rigged to hold you in when you hit the sand. You’re going to hit a lot of sand.
Complete accuracy is impossible: Of the original, only a wingtip bow exists. The brothers famously never left plans, only the patent drawings. (It was the glider, not the powered 1903 Flyer, that first achieved the three-axis control that the brothers patented.) “There are some sketches and notes in their papers, in their notebooks,” Hyde says, adding: “Luckily, the brothers took a lot of good photos.”
Hyde and The Wright Experience built this glider for the Discovery of Flight Foundation, which used it to train pilots for a flight planned in a replica Flyer for December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of powered flight. (That attempt failed.) Once the glider had served its mission, the foundation, like the Wright brothers, stashed the craft in a hangar.
Last year Paul Glenshaw, the executive director of the foundation, and his son visited Kitty Hawk Kites Flight School, which offers instruction in a variety of hang-gliders. Glenshaw sat down with the school’s manager, and along with The Wright Experience, they worked out an agreement in which the school would use the replica to teach gliding on the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Glenshaw says he wanted people to connect with the Wright brothers’ accomplishment, and Hyde says Kitty Hawk Kites was the right group to show what the glider can do: “They know the winds and they know the weather.”
For $349, Kitty Hawk Kites offers a four-hour flight lesson in the glider, with up to five students per lesson. The company has started with one lesson a week. So far, 35 pilots have flown the Wright glider. (“Pilots” may be a misnomer: No experience in airplanes or gliders is necessary.)
When I first arrived at Jockey’s Ridge, Bruce, the clean-cut recreation manager, and assistant recreation manager Andy took me to the school’s hangar. The glider was up on a rack. “It looks fragile but it takes a beating,” Bruce said. “It flexes, it creaks, but it bounces back into shape. It’s tougher than it looks.”
“How safe is it?” I asked.
“I think it’s very safe,” said Bruce.
Well, no one died in the Wrights’ glider, I thought.