In Search of the Real Wright Flyer

Building a replica of the first airplane requires a certain resourcefulness. Anybody got any horsehide glue?

Air & Space Magazine

IT’S ALL ORVILLE’S FAULT. THE WRIGHT BROTHERS' FIRST POWERED AIRPLANE made four short flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. After the last one, as the brothers stood talking, a gust of wind caught the airplane and tumbled it head over heels, cracking it into a jumble of sticks and wire. The Wrights crammed the parts (many of which were scavenged for their future airplanes) into a crate and shipped them home to Dayton, Ohio, where they remained unassembled until Orville rebuilt the Flyer in 1928 for display in the Science Museum in London, England.

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Orville worked from memory—the brothers had produced little documentation because they always worried about rivals stealing their designs—and without the help of Wilbur, who had died of typhoid in 1912. Could Orville recall the few last-minute adaptations they had made before his first flight? Orville’s reconstruction, now hanging center stage at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is only his best guess at the original. We’ll never know exactly what flew in 1903.

As a result, anyone who takes on the task of building a 1903 Wright Flyer today must also resort to some guesswork, backed by three sources: the Wrights’ series of spectacular glass-negative photographs of the airplane, their letters, and a set of blueprints drawn from Orville’s reconstructed Flyer. Between these sources lies a minefield of missing details about fittings and spacing—issues critical to the delicate design. How a builder chooses to fill in the gaps will determine not only whether the airplane is “accurate,” but if it will even fly.

As the centennial of powered flight approaches, three notable teams are hard at work on the problem. Ken Hyde of the Wright Experience is determined to engineer the most accurate Flyer possible. The Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) wants a Flyer that is relatively stable and airworthy. Rick Young of Flugmaschine Wright is more interested in the process of discovery, and in re-creating the brothers’ working relationship.

As these modern-day builders struggle with the finer points of strut spacing and wing rib construction, each faces the same questions: Is history (and the pilot) better served by accuracy or interpretation? How many risks are worth taking—in the name of authenticity—with a re-creation of something as unstable and dangerous as the world’s first airplane?

Rick Young walks briskly to the end of the hangar that is the Virginia Aviation Museum in Richmond. There, the skeleton of his Flyer is alone along the far wall, the gleaming wood frame standing tall in a gallery full of its dark metal progeny. A freckled, energetic bundle of a man with pale hair and trim beard, Young is well known in aircraft building circles for reconstructing and flying the Wrights’ pre-1903 gliders. He also worked with Ken Hyde and the Wright Experience project, but ultimately broke things off after a few disagreements.

Young plans to test fly his replica in Virginia this winter, provided his diet takes off 30-odd pounds, bringing him closer to Wilbur’s weight of 140. Although his schedule puts him in the air before the other teams, Young maintains that such a first is beside the point.

“I’m not trying to experience the first flight,” he explains. “I’m trying to re-create what the Wright brothers went through.” Young works with an assistant, Grover Cleveland Taylor, in the close way he imagines that the Wrights worked. Young and a Chicago partner are funding the project themselves, “otherwise,” he says, “you spend all your time raising money. Funding is all agenda-driven, and you have to do things the way [the sponsors] want.” He estimates they will spend a mere $250,000 on their Flyer, saving money by following in the Wright tradition of using everyday materials.

“Take an issue like glues,” he explains earnestly. “The Wright brothers used horsehide glue. We could try to acquire that, but what’s more honest to the experience, getting the normal glue that’s right there, or going to the ends of the earth to get horsehide glue?” The Wrights relied on standard off-the-shelf materials, he says. “So use the everyday glue, stay on the normal scale rather than spend a fortune.”

Glue is an easy problem to solve. At a table next to the Flyer, Young unrolls a set of blueprints the National Air and Space Museum made as part of a Flyer conservation project in 1985. Here, the real problems begin.

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