The Thrill of Invention | How Things Work | Air & Space Magazine

The Thrill of Invention

A dedicated craftsman explores the invention of the airplane by recreating its predecessors.

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That's the 1901 Wright glider out there, darting about at the end of its kite tether 10 feet in the air. Up here on a great dune, whipped by the blowing sand and a wind gusting to 25 mph, one of the historic photographs taken by the Wright brothers seems to have come to life. The effect is stunning and a bit surreal.

In the old photos, the familiar figure of Wilbur Wright is stretched out in the open space in the center of the lower wing, his hand on the elevator control, his gaze fixed on the sandy slope in front of him. But the pilot I'm watching is a tall, athletic young woman clad in jeans and an A-2 flight jacket, her short golden hair swept straight back by the wind.

"She looks like a blond goddess," someone remarks. "I like to think so," her father responds.

The intrepid aviator is Jacquelyn "Jay" Grattan, a twenty-something lawyer on leave from her duties as an officer and judge advocate with the U. S. Marine Corps. She has just become the first person since Wilbur Wright to fly the most discouraging, frightening, and instructive of the three historic gliders that were the final stepping stones to the invention of the airplane. And her aircraft is also the best replica of that glider that we are likely to see.

Back on the ground after less than two minutes of tethered flight, Jay is not pleased. "Pitch control is a struggle," she remarks to her father. "Now I understand why Wilbur and Orville were so worried about this one."

Jay is not a licensed pilot, but she can scarcely remember a time when the Wright brothers were not a part of her life. Her father, who is standing next to me watching her ride the wind, is Rick Young, a Virginia restaurateur with an abiding passion for the story of the two brothers from Dayton. Young has many years of experience building and flying reproductions of the gliders that led to the airplane as we know it today -- a fully controllable flying machine. "Think about it," he explains. "The Wright brothers didn't even patent a powered airplane. They patented their 1902 glider. It embodied the lessons that were the foundation for the invention of the airplane, the critically important ideas that had to be protected."

At the beginning of their career in aeronautics, the brothers recognized that heavier-than-air flight would require wings capable of lifting the weight of machine and pilot into the air, a reasonably lightweight propulsion system, and a means of balancing and steering the craft in flight. "Of these difficulties," Wilbur Wright wrote in 1901 (compiled by M. W. McFarland in The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright), the first "two are to a certain extent solved." Balance and steering were the hard parts.

The brothers set out in 1900 to develop a winged aircraft that would, for the first time, be completely controlled by the pilot. To this end, they designed, built, and tested an evolutionary chain of four experimental aircraft, one kite (1899) and three gliders (1900, 1901, 1902), and conducted an important series of wind tunnel tests during the fall and winter of 1901.

It was not smooth sailing. Frustration and disappointment were as much a part of the process as the euphoria of discovery. As Young notes, "They were masters at the art of learning from their mistakes." And the gliders were the keys to their success, enabling them to find and overcome problems, to establish the basic principles of aircraft design, and most important, to learn to fly.

Young wants to rediscover the precise details of the Wrights' technology, and reproducing their gliders is simply a means to that end. "They had to translate their deepest insights and most important discoveries into the design and construction details of those amazing gliders," Young explains. "And there is no better way to acquire a genuine grasp of those essential lost details than to build and fly accurate replicas of the historic machines."

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