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State of the Art, Circa 1903

Engineers Hope Rigorous Tests on Replica Will Reveal How the Wright Brothers Flew


When Orville Wright lifted his awkward biplane above the wind-swept dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903, he achieved something no one had done before--powered flight. As his visionary brother Wilbur had noted, they had become "afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man," and they proved it on that historic day.

The flight covered only about 120 feet and lasted just 12 seconds, and the craft reached only 30 mph, but it changed the world.

Now, all these years later, a band of senior engineers, most of them retired, are on the verge of finding out firsthand what the Wright brothers went through as they prepared to change history with the Wright Flyer.

Using "reverse engineering" blueprints of the original craft supplied by the Smithsonian Institution, the engineers are completing a full-sized replica. It is scheduled to be flown early next year, but not by humans. After years of negotiations, the engineers have been awarded two weeks in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's huge wind tunnel at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

There, for the first time, they will be able to carry out aerodynamic tests of the Wright Flyer.

"We felt that for education needs, for historical needs, we wanted to document what that first airplane was like," says Jack Cherne, project chairman. "The only way to do that was in a wind tunnel."

No one has flown such a craft since the Wright brothers and, as it turns out, for good reason.

What the engineers have learned is that while the first airplane may have represented a breakthrough of epochal proportions, it was an unstable beast indeed.

"It was an absolute miracle that they ever got the thing off the ground and back down safely," said Walt Watson, an aeromechanical engineer working on the Wright Flyer Project.

NASA was reluctant at first to grant permission for the use of its wind tunnel. If the replica broke apart during the test, parts of it could damage the facility, possibly to the tune of millions of dollars.

"We had to survive a three-G equivalent load," said William Haynes, meaning they had to prove the flimsy craft could hold three times its own weight. Chuckling over NASA's hesitancy, he added: "I think they never thought the airplane would survive the test."

The replica was turned upside down and about 40 people placed 1,512 sandbags on the craft until it reached three times its normal weight of slightly more than 600 pounds. The craft passed the test, and on March 31, 1997, it will begin the experiment in the wind tunnel.


If that works, the engineers hope to build a second Wright Flyer, almost identical to the first but with subtle modifications that will give it the stability needed for a human to fly it.

That will culminate a program that began when a replica of the Wright Flyer, owned by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was destroyed in a fire at the San Diego Aerospace Museum in 1978. Fortunately, the replica had been insured for $20,000, providing funds for the current project.

Every Saturday morning, engineers crowd into a warehouse in Gardena to work on the craft. Some of them, including project engineer Fred Culick, have been around so long that even senior engineers are awed.

"There are people around here you cussed in school because they wrote the textbooks you had to sweat over," Watson said as he gazed at clusters of men working on a fir strut.

"We are handicapped because there are so many of us," added Wendel Seward. "Every time we have a problem we have at least six perfect solutions."

Throughout the project, the engineers have been amazed by the depth of understanding achieved by the Wright brothers. The Wrights succeeded where others had failed because they understood the necessity of control--rather than just brute force--and because they were years ahead of their time in their comprehension of aerodynamics.

"Every time we find something odd in the airplane we are amazed at what fantastic engineers those two guys were," Cherne says. They had a reason for everything.

Like most people on the project, Cherne's career has spanned aviation history from biplanes to space. He headed the team at TRW that built the engines for the lunar lander.

The Wrights hit on the idea of controlling their craft by warping its wings--or altering the physical shape of its aerodynamic surfaces--a basic concept that is still used in modern aircraft. Hardly the reckless bicycle mechanics that they are often depicted as, the brothers had laid the groundwork for success through years of flying in gliders.

They understood what happens when the weight of the pilot shifts, for example. Thus Orville was able to control the first airplane partly because he was already an experienced pilot, Cherne says.


There will be no pilot aboard the replica tested in the wind tunnel, and simulation of the pilot's movement will be provided by a mechanical device. But there will be a dummy, dressed in a three-piece suit that became the Wrights' trademark, to replicate the drag caused by the pilot.

Some day, the engineers hope one of their clan will climb aboard a slightly modified Wright Flyer and take to the air.

Culick, who built a one-eighth scale replica that was tested in Caltech's wind tunnel and proved the instability of the design, has first crack at it.

Cherne will have to wait awhile. He is fourth in line to pilot the replica.

"If there's anything left of it," he says with a sigh, "I'll get my chance then."

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