Building a Wright Flyer isn't easy

Aviation: Secretive inventors left clues to their contributions to powered flight in letters, telegrams, diary entries and personal papers scattered over a half-century.

March 03, 2002|By David Perlmutt | David Perlmutt,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WARRENTON, Va. - Through the rolling horse-and-hunt country of Northern Virginia, down a rural road lined by stone walls, retired airline pilot Ken Hyde is rediscovering flight by crawling delicately into the genius of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

In a sprawling hangar, Hyde and his team of mechanics, machinists, woodworkers and engineers are reproducing the 1903 Wright Flyer One that will be flown on the North Carolina Outer Banks on Dec. 17, 2003 - at the anniversary of the exact moment the Dayton, Ohio, brothers propelled the world into powered flight 100 years earlier.

Their reproduction will be faithful to the wings' curvature, the ash ribs, spruce struts and every seam that pieced together the muslin wing covers as specified by the Wrights - a feat far more difficult than the team initially thought it would be.

`Very secretive'

"All the papers and blueprints of the Wrights were very secretive. The stuff was buried," said Hyde, 62, who became interested in the brothers' work 10 years ago when his antique plane restoration company was commissioned to reproduce a Wright Model B, the Wrights' first production plane.

"I thought it would be easy to do, that everything would be documented and we could get a set of blueprints and build it. We were six months later before we started sawing the first piece of wood.

"That's when the light bulb came on - that this was a very good detective story that had never been told. We know what the Wrights did, we just didn't know how they did it. "

Hyde and his team - called The Wright Experience - are telling that story by using a complex piece of reverse engineering, deconstructing the brothers' inventions so they can follow the thinking it took to build the first successful powered flying machine.

They have found clues in letters, telegrams, diary entries and personal papers scattered over a half-century. In Hyde's office are more than 100 thick binders full of writings about the Wrights' lives as inveterate tinkerers.

The team has scoured the country for artifacts, measuring each through digital imaging. They found a "vertical 4" engine block - No. 33 - in a man's bay window in Marin County, Calif. Orville Wright had given the block to a friend, who gave it to his son.

`I have a 1904 propeller'

At a conference in Dayton, Hyde sat at lunch next to Marianne Miller Hudec of Boston, a great-grandniece of the Wrights. She asked Hyde about his testing of the Wrights' propellers. Hyde told her he wanted to build all the propellers and test them, but he couldn't find a 1904 prop.

"She said, `Well, I have a 1904 propeller that you could borrow,'" Hyde said. "I nearly bit my fork in half."

For years, the prop hung in Hudec's mother's den. Wilbur Wright used it on the plane he flew in the brothers' first public flight in LeMans, France, in 1908.

Later the team found another 1904 propeller, displayed at a YMCA camp in Oregonia, Ohio, for more than 50 years. The Engineers Club of Dayton lent the team an original Wright "Horizontal Four" - No. 3 - engine.

Hudec told Hyde she'd inherited a piece of the wing fabric from the '03 Flyer. It was muslin, tightly woven material used for women's underwear and called "Pride of the West." It had covered the top of the lower right wing.

"I asked if I could come up to see the cloth, and a few days later I got an Amazon.com box in the mail with the cloth inside," Hyde said. "I nearly fainted. This cloth is like the Shroud of Turin. It tells a story.

"All of the artifacts speak to us. The more we can examine, the more we're able to fill in the missing pieces of history."

Moved to tears

Hudec traveled to The Wright Experience, near Washington, for the first time this year. When she saw the 1903 plane reproduction, she was moved to tears.

Her mother, Ivonette Wright, was the daughter of Orville and Wilbur's brother, Lorin. Hudec spent her childhood listening to stories about their exploits.

She took an immediate interest in Hyde's efforts.

"The Smithsonian and people in this country thought the Wright brothers were just a couple of crazy bicycle mechanics," said Hudec, who spent every Christmas Eve at Uncle Orv's dinner table until he died in 1948. "It took many years before the scientific community recognized their accomplishments."

But no one tried to figure out how they did it, until now.

"Ken really is the first person who is trying to understand how they thought and what their scientific process was," she said. "I was astonished by what he has accomplished. Everything is done so exact. Even the screws have been milled to match their screws. I've waited all my life for someone to do this."

Hyde came to the project with a lifelong love of flight, acquired from his late father, John.

Captain Johnny, as he was called, was a railroad station manager who loved to tinker, just as the Wrights did. He grew up near Warrenton and learned to fly during the days of barnstorming. In the 1920s, he built a biplane that he kept in the garage.

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