KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. - No one knows exactly what the world's first successful airplane - the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer - looked like when it lifted off a wooden launching rail at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and into history a century ago today.
Orville and Wilbur Wright made no detailed drawings of it. Damage caused by a mischievous wind that day has forever obscured its true design. And though the original Flyer is enshrined at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, it is only 60 percent to 70 percent authentic.
When antique plane restorer Ken Hyde set out in 1992 to reproduce the wood-and-cloth plane to the smallest detail, it was - as one project volunteer put it - "like trying to build a dinosaur from scratch."
Today Hyde's resurrected Flyer will be in the spotlight as thousands gather on the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk to see if it can live up to its predecessor in a 100-years-to-the-minute re-enactment of the Wrights' famous flight.
To replicate the plane, Hyde and two dozen assistants at the Wright Experience, Hyde's plane-restoration shop in Warrenton, Va., combed through the threads of history with the eyes of detectives, consulting about 250,000 pages of Wright documents, poring over hundreds of photographs, and examining surviving airplane parts as well as Flyer blueprints drawn after its restoration.
Their investigation uncovered long-obscured details about the plane and has given birth to the most authentic reproduction ever built. (The 2003 Flyer is as notoriously unstable as the original. Last month, a successful test flight was followed by a crash five days later, although the damage was quickly repaired.)
At 10:35 a.m. today, weather permitting, Kevin Kochersberger, an engineering professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and one of two pilots who trained more than a year for this flight, will lay prone in the cradle of the 605-pound plane. He will then propel it along a wooden launching rail in an attempt to replicate the world's first powered flight: the 120-foot, 12-second jaunt of Orville Wright on Dec. 17, 1903. Terry Queijo, an American Airlines pilot from Maryland's Eastern Shore, will portray Wilbur Wright and serve as the backup pilot. A second flight is planned for later in the day.
The flights will culminate a six-day celebration in honor of the brothers from Ohio who solved the riddle of human flight and forever shrank the world.
There's no guarantee of success, but what Hyde will say with certainty is this: If Wilbur and Orville Wright were alive today, they might mistake his replica for the one flown that December morning.
"There's no doubt that we have gotten as close to the original Wright airplane as we possibly can," says Hyde, whose workshop was commissioned by the Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association to duplicate the airplane with about $1.2 million from sponsors.
A longtime mystery
Precisely what the Wrights' first airplane looked like has long been a mystery.
After the first flight by Orville, the brothers alternated as pilots for three more attempts that day with Wilbur flying 852 feet in 59 seconds on the fourth flight. It would be the machine's last.
As the bicycle mechanics stood on the secluded sands discussing the long flight, a gust of wind hurled the double-winged craft into a crackling somersault. The brothers crated the wrecked plane and shipped it to Dayton, where it was stored for 13 years. It spent two weeks under water and caked in mud when a flood struck in 1913.
Orville reassembled the flying machine for an exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1916, four years after Wilbur's death. He fixed the Kitty Hawk damage, but it's unclear how true the repairs were to the 1903 design.
In his final work on the plane, in 1928, he refurbished the Flyer and replaced its original fabric with new material of the same type. The icon of the air age was formally installed at the Smithsonian Institution in 1948 - a few months after Orville's death.
"The Flyer, the way it sits today, is the way Orville wanted us to see it," says Wright Experience researcher and mechanic Bill Hadden, 42. "That's sort of putting a happy face to it."
In 1992, Hyde, a broom-thin man who speaks in measured tones, became intrigued by the Wrights' work when his team of craftsmen, mechanics and engineers, then called Virginia Aviation, was commissioned to build a 1911 Wright Model B, the first mass-produced military airplane. The award-winning restorer thought the project would be as simple as picking up the blueprints from the Smithsonian and turning out a completed Model B copy 18 months later. But none existed.
His team spent six months at the Library of Congress researching the project before cutting the first piece of wood.