The Thrill of Invention

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

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Rick Young began his quest in 1975, when he and his brother Bill built a reproduction of the 1900 glider and flew it in a NASA promotional film entitled Flying Machines. Five years later, Young began work on a reproduction of the 1902 Wright glider in his basement. Jay and her brother David were not yet teenagers when their father kited them aloft aboard that aircraft.

Over the next decade, Rick and his 1902 glider appeared in television commercials, on the Disney Channel, and as stars of the IMAX film On the Wing. The glider was exhibited at the Museum of Science in Richmond, Virginia, but was withdrawn and refurbished in 1994 for a role in The Wright Stuff, a film for PBS. That same year, Young forged an alliance with Ken Hyde, an airline pilot and nationally recognized restorer of historic aircraft. A Wright Model B (see "What Makes It Wright?" June/July 1994) that Hyde's shop produced for the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Alabama, also in 1994, is perhaps the finest reproduction of a powered Wright aircraft anywhere.

Hyde and Young were natural partners and formed a joint venture, The Wright Experience, in which they share a dedication to meticulous accuracy along with a goal of reproducing a full range of Wright aircraft. Hyde plans to build and fly another one or two powered Wright airplanes by 1999 or 2000. Young has reproduced all three of the Wright gliders, and Hyde and Young's first powered Wright airplane is under construction, with its first test flight scheduled for this fall.

The notion of telling the story of the Wright brothers through the experiences of two talented men determined to retrace the path to powered flight intrigued the producers of the television series "Nova." "Here was an opportunity to do something more than simply capture breathtaking images of Wright machines in the air," producer Michael Barnes says. "Although a little of that would be just fine, thank you very much." He and his colleagues at WGBH, the public television station in Boston, recognized a rare opportunity to walk viewers through the process of invention.

Young would refurbish and fly his existing 1902 reproduction. The 1900 replica originally built in the mid-1970s was long gone, however, and Young had never attempted to reproduce the 1901 machine. Research was the essential first step in building the new gliders.

Young searched for fresh information by carefully reexamining the surviving original photographs of the gliders. It's hard to believe, but only 12 of the 303 original Wright brothers glass plate photographs at the Library of Congress show the first two Wright aircraft.

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.

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