Under the Hood of a Wright Flyer

Aviation historians and restorers get a rare peek at a 98-year-old engine.

Passenger Thomas Selfridge (left) and Orville Wright prepare to take off at Fort Myer, Virginia on September 17, 1908. They crashed soon after, and Selfridge became the first air fatality. (NASM)
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In an earlier research trip to the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, Hyde and Cone had rummaged through several shipping trunks transferred to the museum from the Wright factory. Inside were a jumble of parts and some wooden templates that were used as casting models. Cone measured, photographed, and deduced the functions of the pieces—they were unlabeled—then made his own templates and bronze parts.

In September, he held a small bronze flywheel he had made up to its Wright counterpart. “The spokes are a little thicker,” he said of his own. Sure enough, the Wright flywheel looked more graceful. He took from his pocket a bronze “cam follower,” a small connector that rests on the drive shaft and controls a pushrod to open the engine’s exhaust valve. He dropped it onto the 1908 drive shaft: wrench-like, the opening at the base fit perfectly on the shaft, and the piece was the same height as the cam follower already resting there. Cone, shining the flashlight on the piece, said slowly as he studied it, “I see that for some reason my casting does not have the sharp corners of the original.” He seemed slightly mystified. “I’ll fix that,” he said, straightening.

“This is stuff that nobody will see and that won’t matter to anybody but me,” he admits. But Cone doesn’t want to be known as an engineer. “I’d rather be known as a counterfeiter,” he says. He wants it to be exact.

When Cone and Hyde and the other members of the Wright Experience have finished their exact reproduction of the 1908 Flyer—Hyde dislikes the word replica; he says “a replica usually is just a lookalike at a distance, and can be made with any type of materials”—they plan to fly the aircraft just as the Wright brothers did nearly a century ago, for public exhibition. Hyde is looking for sponsors for the flight, and trusting in the public fascination with the Wright brothers, hopes it can take place on the National Mall, not far from where the 1909 airplane is on display, with its engine cover back on.

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