The Thrill of Invention
A dedicated craftsman explores the invention of the airplane by recreating its predecessors.
- By Tom Crouch
- Air & Space magazine, May 1998
(Page 3 of 7)
Rather than attempting to work with the fragile originals, Young traveled to the Archives and Special Collections Unit of the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Library at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where the Wright family collection of first-generation prints of the photographs is preserved.
After scanning these crystal-clear prints into his computer, Young could examine the digitized images with ease. In this way, he was able to understand the very different ways in which the fabric was applied to the wings of the gliders. He could also sort out the confusion of trussing and control wires barely visible in the photos. Even the size and shape of small fittings could be studied in detail and at leisure.
The replicas were built in a shop near Young's restaurant and at Ken Hyde's facility in the rolling country a few miles north of Warrenton, Virginia. Young started in the early summer of 1997 and finished in early October, when the three machines, along with considerable crew, traveled to Jockey's Ridge State Park, four miles south of the Wright Brothers National Memorial and eight miles south of what was once the fishing village of Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The largest sand hill in the eastern United States, Jockey's Ridge is familiar to the thousands of tourists who flock to the Outer Banks each summer. It still offers the combination of wind, sand, and slope that first attracted the Wright brothers to the Outer Banks in 1900. Had you trudged to the top of the great dune on almost any good-weather day last October, you would have found yourself transported back almost a century to the days when Wilbur and Orville Wright were testing their gliders.
For Wright glider pilots, the rule is "lighter is better." As a result, Young's wife, Sue, had performed much of the flying for the IMAX film. Rick was so determined to fly for the "Nova" cameras that he lost 40 pounds in the two months prior to the 1997 trials. Jay, who had flown for the PBS program, was on leave from the Marines and accompanied the team just in case she was needed. Both father and daughter had plenty of opportunities to fly.
Young and his crew flight tested each of the reproductions in turn, and three years worth of experiments were collapsed into three short weeks of combined flight testing and flying. The letters, diaries, notebooks, and photographs of the Wright brothers came to life for those of us who took part in the events unfolding on Jockey's Ridge. There was a sense of having shared some of the excitement that the brothers had experienced and of having come to a new understanding of the process of invention.
1900:The brothers started their active experiments in Dayton in July 1899, when Wilbur first flew a biplane kite with a five-foot wingspan designed to test a new approach to roll and pitch control. By manipulating two pairs of strings tied to the leading edges of both wings, the operator could shift the upper wing in front of or back of the lower wing's leading edge, or twist the two wings "so as to present their surfaces to the air at different angles of incidence and thus secure unequal lifts on the two sides," as Orville explained.
From the outset, the Wrights thought like engineers. In 1900 and 1901, they relied on data from German pioneer Otto Lilienthal to calculate the wing area required to lift the estimated weight of their aircraft at a particular wind speed. The brothers planned to test their first full-scale machine as a kite. They hoped that they would be able to fly "for hours at a time" tethered to the top of a derrick and grow accustomed to the wing warping and the use of the forward elevator to control pitch, "getting in this way a maximum of practice with a minimum of effort."