EL SEGUNDO — Aviation experts building a flying replica of the world’s first airplane have found the Wright stuff was a little wrong.
Orville and Wilbur Wright made four brief flights Dec. 17, 1903, marking the first time a manned, heavier-than-air plane sustained powered flight. That same day, a gust of wind mangled their handmade aircraft and it never flew again.
Now, new research on the 1903 Flyer – including by Air Force test pilots who flew a jet modified to behave like the original plane – shows the beginnings of aviation could well have meant the death of the Wrights that winter day.
“I’d say it was almost a miracle they were able to fly it,” said Jack Cherne, a TRW Inc. engineer who is chairman of the Wright Flyer Project, sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The group is one of at least three nationwide that aim to complete flying reproductions in time for the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flights near Kitty Hawk, N.C.
None, however, has accumulated the wealth of data that the AIAA group has on the 1903 Flyer, which was later reconstructed and is now on display at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
“It’s like balancing a yardstick on one finger, two at one time. If you lose it, it goes – quickly,” said Fred Culick, a professor of aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology who is first in line to pilot the plane.
The exercise also humbled Air Force test pilots, each with hundreds of hours of experience flying the world’s most advanced aircraft, when they recently tried their hands at the stick.
“Every pilot, his first try, crashed the simulator. It took less than a second. That’s how quickly it gets away from you,” said Capt. Tim Jorris, one of a small group of pilots at Edwards Air Force Base who took turns flying the simulator as part of a senior project.
The pilots eventually took to the skies in a Learjet 24D programmed to fly like the original Flyer. Most had to rely on a computer-assisted stability augmentation system to keep the business jet aloft.
“I thoroughly cannot imagine the Wright brothers, having very little experience in powered aircraft, getting this airborne and flying,” said Major Mike Jansen. “My respect for what they did went up immediately the first time I took the controls.”
As the project’s members begin work on the replica they intend to fly, perhaps as early as next summer, they are tweaking the Wrights’ original design to improve the plane’s performance.
Modifications will include changes to the plane’s airfoil, or shape of its wings, and its canard, which will boost its stability in the crucial pitch axis. A more powerful Volkswagen engine will drive the twin propellers. And a computer feedback system will assist the pilot in keeping the plane aloft.
The “stand-off” replica will ultimately seem virtually identical to the original to the casual observer.
“The only point to this is to give the public the impression of the first flight — repeatedly and safely,” Culick said.
Ken Hyde, a retired American Airlines pilot who is spearheading his own effort to complete a flying reproduction, said straying from the original design defeats the purpose of honoring the Wrights.
Hyde said his The Wright Experience flyer would change nothing from the original design, except the quality of some materials. He hopes to learn to fly the airplane — while tethered in a Virginia wind tunnel — before attempting to leave the ground.
“What is the purpose of changing the airplane in the first place? You’re not going to learn their secrets of how they were able to develop flight in such a short time,” Hyde said. “It’s certainly not a tribute to them; it’s a tribute to us today.”
Members of the AIAA group said their effort balances authenticity with safety.
“We want the experience, but we don’t want to kill ourselves,” said Cherne, who worked on the Apollo moon missions.
On the Net: http://www.wrightflyer.org