Wright plane copy lands as learning tool at academy


September 16, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

Nearly a century ago, some of the nation's first naval aviators flew over Annapolis in a plane built by the Wright brothers.

Yesterday the 1911 Navy B-1 returned to the Naval Academy, this time as a full-size, exact replica.

The open-air plane was hoisted up into one side of Dahlgren Hall, where it will eventually become part of an exhibit that celebrates how academy graduates and the school have played a role in aviation history.

"This is a priceless piece of history that will be part of the rebirth of Dahlgren Hall," said Syd Rodenbarger, a 1970 graduate behind the effort. "Naval Academy graduates have been instrumental in aviation from the beginning, and all the way up to today."

The Wright Experience, a Warrenton, Va.-based company, "remanufactured" the plane using period techniques and materials.

Owner Ken Hyde annually produces about two or three copies of aircraft made by Orville and Wilbur Wright, the fathers of modern aviation.

Hyde has even attempted to fly the planes, notably crashing a B-1 he had prepared for the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of flight in 2003. Rodenbarger declined to say how much the new B-1 cost the academy, noting only that it was paid for with the academy's tourism revenues.

"The Navy B-1 was cutting-edge technology in 1911," Hyde said in a written statement. "We're very excited that the aircraft exhibit is interactive and can be lowered and used as a teaching [aid] to demonstrate its unique `wing-warping' control system to future naval aviators."

The skeletal aircraft has a 36-foot wingspan and seating for two small pilots. Its frame appears metallic, although it was built with spruce and ash and covered by the Wright brothers with aluminum paint to conceal their craftsmanship, according to Bob Bollinger, spokesman for the Wright Experience.

The new plane hangs across Dahlgren Hall from a small model of the first USS Antietam, a sailing sloop launched in 1864 and often used to teach Mids about the dynamics of sailing.

The B-1 will be used in teaching, Rodenbarger said, because it can be lowered from the ceiling.

It is also expected to become a key attraction, much like John Paul Jones' crypt, for the tens of thousands of people who visit the Annapolis campus every year.

The transformation of Dahlgren Hall into a recreation center will add to the exhibit's appeal. The 100-year-old building, most recently home to an ice rink and now a temporary dining hall, will continue to display its collection of historical photos.

Rodenbarger took an interest in the plane when he noticed one of those old photographs, of Lt. John Rogers, known in naval historical circles as Naval Aviator Number 2, preparing to fly a B-1 outside of Dahlgren Hall, flanked by midshipmen. In the photo, now on display below the aircraft, Rogers tinkers with the fuel throttle.

A historian researched the photo's story and found a previously underappreciated piece of the Navy's past: The Navy paid the Wright brothers $5,000 to build the B-1 and teach someone how to fly it.

Rogers flew the plane, originally based across the Severn River from the academy, all over Maryland, from Annapolis to the National Mall to Havre de Grace and College Park, according to the flight log kept at the Smithsonian Museum, which Rodenbarger hopes to borrow and display.

The exhibit will also celebrate the milestones reached by prominent graduates and pilots such as Alan B. Shepard, the first American in space, and Wendy Lawrence, the first female Navy graduate to go into space.bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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