Winging it: Wright Flyer centennial spurs host of replicas

The first flight of the Wright Flyer was not much more than a hop. The Wright brothers' plane, made of spruce and fabric, got barely 10 feet off the ground and landed 12 seconds later in the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C.

To celebrate the Dec. 17 centennial of man's first powered flight, aviation enthusiasts worldwide are racing to build a replica of the Wright Flyer. But there's a hitch: They're all having problems getting a copy of the Wrights' primitive plane airborne.

"We put a man on the moon, and yet we haven't been able to rebuild the Wright Flyer and fly it," said Ken Hyde, 63, a retired American Airlines pilot in Virginia who heads a group that has been working for more than a decade to reproduce an exact flying version. "It's a lot harder than people think, even with all the technology we have today."

Hyde, who has the backing of the Wright family and funding from Ford Motor, has secured a permit to fly his replica at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17. And he believes his painstakingly detailed version will fly.

But a group of retired aerospace engineers in El Segundo, Calif., disagree. After conducting wind-tunnel tests, they are convinced that unless flight conditions are perfect, such as the cold temperatures and 27 mph headwinds that the Wrights faced in 1903, an exact replica like Hyde's just won't fly.

"Mother Nature participated then, so if Mother Nature doesn't cooperate, it won't fly," said Jack Cherne, a former rocket engineer who helped design the engine on the Apollo lunar lander that put men on the moon. The original Wright Flyer is "a pile of kindling," he said.

Cherne's El Segundo group is building its own Wright Flyer, but with modifications that members say will make it flyable. "We don't want to build something that will kill somebody," Cherne said.

Hyde concedes that the Wrights' first plane "is an unstable airplane, and the wind-tunnel tests bear that out." But he added, "Changing the airplane will defeat the whole purpose of re-creating the flight. It makes the celebration meaningless."

An ongoing debate

Hyde and Cherne are at opposite ends of a fierce debate within the aviation community over how to re-enact the Wrights' historic flight. At least 25 groups are building Wright Flyer replicas, including teams from Brazil and Paris; residents of Glen Ellyn, Ill.; and a hodgepodge of backyard tinkerers across the United States.

So many are trying to build one that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in August imposed new inspection and certification guidelines for Wright Flyer replicas. No Wright Flyer reproduction can fly without an FAA airworthiness certificate, even if it tries only to duplicate the modest 12-second flight.

"There is no other invention in history that is being rebuilt like this one," said Nick Engler, founder of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co., which builds replicas of various Wright airplanes for display by museums. "Where are the guys remanufacturing the Edison light bulb? Nothing catches the imagination like the Wright Flyer."

The drastically different approaches by Hyde and Cherne also have touched off an intense debate among Wright brothers aficionados, who increasingly are splintered into the airplane purists vs. the pragmatists.

Hyde is considered a purist because he wants not only to reproduce the plane exactly the way it was made, including using the same materials, but also to fly it at the exact spot Dec. 17 where the first flight took place and at the exact moment, 10:35 a.m. The National Park Service said it had sold 115,000 tickets for the Dec. 17 celebration at Kitty Hawk.

Cherne's group, many of whose members worked on the nation's most advanced aircraft, including the bat-winged B-2 stealth bomber, are pragmatists. They want to build an operational aircraft, even if some modifications and compromises need to be made.

'A healthy competition'

"It's healthy competition," said Christian Markow, outreach coordinator for the Centennial of Flight Commission, a panel appointed by Congress to be the clearinghouse for the celebration.

The rival groups all "want to be the first and have their projects considered the most pure, the most exact, the more real, the more flyable," Markow said. "But in the end ... they are all enhancing the whole story (of) the amount of work that Wilbur and Orville Wright went through."

Indeed, it took the brothers four years of tests, first in gliders and then with a plane equipped with a gas-powered engine, before they flew into history. The Wrights, who made their living running a bicycle shop, were self-taught, inveterate tinkerers. After struggling with their first gliders, the Wrights built the first wind tunnel to test different wing designs.

The Wrights planned to use an automobile engine in their plane but discovered it would be too heavy. So the brothers built their own 12-horsepower, four-cylinder motor to turn two bicycle chains linked to a pair of hand-carved wooden propellers. To help steer the plane, the pilot lay prone on a wooden cradle on the lower wing, and when he shifted his hips, wires that ran from the cradle to the wingtips "warped" the surface and provided lift.

The original Wright Flyer, with its 40-foot wingspan, weighed about 605 pounds and cost about $1,000 to build.

In all, the brothers, taking turns, flew the Wright Flyer four times that day in 1903. The first flight, piloted by Orville, landed 120 feet from where it started. The longest flight came a few hours later, when Wilbur Wright soared for 59 seconds and flew 852 feet. But a gust of wind flipped the plane over, and the Wrights' historic day of flying was done.

For years the Wrights worked in private, developing better plane designs. And they remained sensitive about their role in history. One sore subject was a 1903 plane designed by Samuel Langley, head of the Smithsonian Institution. Langley's plane was launched from a houseboat in the Potomac River and crashed disastrously into the water. Years later a modified version of Langley's plane actually flew, and based on that flight the Smithsonian honored Langley for having built the first successful flying machine.

Orville Wright was so angry over the revisionist history that he shipped the reconstructed Wright Flyer to a London museum. Eventually, the Smithsonian acknowledged the Wrights' accomplishment, and the plane now is on exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

For current Wright Flyer devotees, one problem is that the brothers left behind no final blueprint for the original plane. So aviation buffs rely on notes and letters that the brothers wrote. But the void in the design details has fueled a debate over what constitutes an exact replica of the first plane.

"They built it and then drew as they went along," said Fred Culick, professor of aerodynamics at the California Institute of Technology and chief engineer on Cherne's team. "But there was no overall design set."

Cherne's group, working mainly on weekends in a warehouse donated by a rocket company in El Segundo, finished what they considered an exact replica. Then in 1998 they tested it at NASA's Ames Research Center near Sunnyvale, Calif.

Three weeks of wind-tunnel tests of their Wright Flyer replica "clearly showed how unstable it was and how it can't be flown safely," said Culick, who agreed to join the team only if he was designated the No. 1 pilot to fly the replica.

So Cherne's group set about building a second Wright Flyer replica, this time with considerable modifications. Relying on their experience as aerospace engineers, they redesigned the wings' wooden ribs, curving them more in the front and straightening them out in the back for better lift. They sharpened the leading wing edge to make the wings more aerodynamic. And they tripled the horsepower in the engine. But the overall dimensions and the basic design of the plane were kept largely intact.

Because Hyde has a permit to fly his aircraft at Kitty Hawk, Cherne's group plans to fly its plane Dec. 17 at Edwards Air Force Base. Cherne's team plans to make several short test flights late this month just to make sure it will fly.

In this corner ...

Meanwhile, 2,500 miles away, Hyde has been putting the finishing touches on his Wright Flyer, which he believes will be the most exact replica ever made. "We're not changing any aspect of the airplane," Hyde said. "The most difficult thing to do is to not change anything."

Hyde, for instance, has relied on a 34-foot-high pile of letters, notes and memos that the brothers wrote about the Wright Flyer.

Hyde, who works out of his farm in Warrenton, Va., has two dozen assistants. Many are engineering students from Old Dominion University, which has been helping Hyde conduct wind-tunnel tests of propellers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Langley Flight Research Center. The FAA recently certified Hyde's plane after verifying that it met structural and safety specifications.

For his plane, Hyde has used the same type of bike-spoke wiring used in the Wrights' original craft. His team built the engine from scratch, much as the Wrights did, including casting the iron piston cylinders for the four-piston engine. The ladies' underwear company that made the muslin fabric used in the original wings went out of business in 1928. But a textile manufacturer has been able to duplicate the fabric based on a small remnant that had been a Wright family heirloom.

Hyde said he was merely trying to be faithful to the original. "You will find no books, no detailed drawings of what this airplane should look like, no manuals to adjust the engine or how to tighten the torque on the propeller," he said. "We want to leave a database of what they did and how they did it for future generations."

Some rival groups aren't shy about expressing disdain for Hyde. "I think there is a bit of jealousy there," Markow said, noting that Hyde is the only one to have secured a permit to fly his aircraft at Kitty Hawk. "He's the one who got there first."

Hyde, a veteran restorer of antique aircraft, won the backing of two generations of relatives of Orville and Wilbur Wright. His $1.5 million budget is funded by Ford and the Experimental Aircraft Association.

In addition, defense contractor Northrop Grumman is paying for the training of various pilots for Hyde's aircraft and has enlisted the help of legendary test pilot Scott Crossfield to oversee the flight training. Hyde's would-be Wright Flyer pilots have been using virtual simulation computer programs and flying a 1902 Wright glider replica to master various flying techniques.

The pilots, however, have to unlearn years of training for the Wright Flyer, because controlling the plane is much more like riding a bicycle than flying an aircraft, Hyde said.

Others' efforts falter

As Hyde's and Cherne's projects near completion, other efforts to re-create the historic flight have been disappointing.

Last month, a group from Glen Ellyn, Ill., attempted to fly its Wright Flyer on the lawn of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

The plane was built by a grass-roots team of volunteers, many of them working in garages. But with winds barely reaching 5 mph, the small, four-cylinder engine did not have enough power to lift the craft off the ground. After three tries, the group gave up.

"The Wrights flew into a 25-mile-an-hour wind. I think we could have flown if we had that," said Mike Gillian, pilot of the replica. His group hopes to try again this month.

Meanwhile, Hyde insisted he won't conduct any test flights before Dec. 17 in order to be "truly authentic" to the experience of the first flight. "We know the Wright brothers flew it, so it's definitely flyable," Hyde said.

The original Wright Flyer "was in many ways a very fragile machine, and it had a very narrow margin to operate," said Stephen Wright, Orville and Wilbur's great-grandnephew, who plans to be at Kitty Hawk to witness the re-creation. His great-granduncles, he said, failed numerous times before the first flight and "spent a lot of time repairing the machine."

"The odds of Ken (Hyde) flying are the same odds that the Wright brothers had. The event is going to be largely weather-dependent," he said, noting that Hyde already has succeeded in showcasing the great difficulties of building the plane. "A successful flight on Dec. 17 will be icing on the cake."