Wright Brothers’ first flight readied for re-creation

 - February 4, 2008, 9:45 AM

No one has kept the Flyer aloft for more than a minute, not even the Wright brothers. So the crowd clapped politely after watching this latest crash. “C’mon, it’s all ones and zeroes. You can’t do any harm,” teased Microsoft executive Bruce Williams as he invited all comers, including the ample security force, at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to drop to their bellies and swivel their hips on the Flyer simulator. The life-size cradle is wired to Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight, in a setup to visit EAA events and airshows beginning last month.

Nearby, Ken Hyde of The Wright Experience juggled reporters, as did EAA president Tom Poberezny. An all-black Lincoln Aviator Kitty Hawk Edition had towed Hyde’s 605-pound Flyer from behind a curtain where an hour before weather personality Willard Scott did standup for the airplane that represents 100 years of powered flight. Then came the honking. As media pressed Hyde and Poberezny, the Lincoln suddenly lapsed to honking and flashing, as though to remind guests of its role. The Aviator is the official vehicle of the “EAA Countdown to Kitty Hawk.”

Ford Motor Co., like powered flight, turns 100 this year and the reproduction 1903 Wright Flyer it had sponsored was unveiled at Washington National Airport on March 18 to kick off visits to six or more sites from last month’s Sun ’n’ Fun EAA Fly-In at Lakeland, Fla., to the NBAA Convention this October (a full schedule of where the reproduction will travel can be found at www.countdowntokittyhawk.com).

On December 17 a pilot, yet to be chosen, will attempt to recreate the historic first flight, one century later to the minute. Whether he lasts a minute or leaves the ground at all remains to be seen, but the notion has nonetheless excited sponsors from Ford to Microsoft to Eclipse Aviation, all of which sent executives to the preview event, as did a half-dozen people from the aviation alphabets.

Next year the well traveled Flyer will come to rest at Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., while the Wright National Memorial in Kitty Hawk, N.C., gets its understudy: an unflown replica also built by Hyde. The stay-at-home Flyer was commissioned by FBO magnate Harry Combs and given to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Hyde and a legion of craftsmen, engineers and volunteers work from an idyllic patch of Virginia countryside, including a 2,100-foot grass strip serving as the focal point for his antique fly-in barbecues each June. Cash and donations for The Wright Experience flow through the nonprofit Discovery of Flight Foundation, chaired by Weldon Britton. The team is working to “rediscover” the Wrights’ approach to research, testing and analysis by constructing flying prototypes using identical tools, materials and methods (see www.discoveryofflight.org and www.wrightexperience.com).

The team’s devotion to detail has earned it donations and prestige. A Wright great grandniece, Marianne Miller Hudec, even lent her patch of Pride of the West muslin, an obsolete fabric originally designed for women’s undergarments. The fabric had flown four times on Dec. 17, 1903, and its loan allowed Hyde to examine the seams, thread count and thread direction, and to recreate the precise attachment points on ribs and the wing assembly. In 1913 the Flyer had been water damaged in a great flood in Dayton, Ohio, and in 1928 its fabric was torn up for distribution among family when Orville dismantled the Flyer for shipment to the London Science Museum, where it remained until 1948.

The original Flyer now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C, but Hyde questions calling that machine the most accurate. After its four successful flights in 1903, the Flyer was smashed in a wind gust then stored without care. Years later, Orville made restorations using different materials and added the refinements he had since learned. Hyde frequently raises a challenge that historic records cannot answer: “Can a reproduction be more original than the original?”

Sponsors say yes, but the public has yet to vote. The “Countdown to Kitty Hawk” is the highest profile of a legion of builders, each constructing a flyable Flyer. At least 25 static Flyers sit in displays, and new, full-size machines by private modelers are appearing almost monthly. The competition for display and sponsor dollars has brought division amongst builders; a mostly intramural debate with sharp lines of nuance amongst the community. It’s hard to explain the difference between a duplicate, reproduction, replica, recreation, reconstruction, inspiration or representation of a Flyer.

Some builders have sourced their parts in secret to sidestep the liability issues of flying a century-old design. Those building flyable “1903-like” machines have often chosen durability over accuracy, flyability over materials, and enhancements for safety over the frail original. Each claims to be “first” based on a unique approach, though for the 75th anniversary on Dec. 17, 1978, craftsman Ken Kellett flew at Kitty Hawk and the feat was captured in Quest for Flight, which won an Emmy; the machine hangs in the Fantasy of Flight Museum in Polk City, Fla.

First or not, someone will fly this particular Flyer. Last July at AirVenture Oshkosh, four candidates were announced, including Hyde himself, Chris Johnson, Kevin Kochersberger and Terry Queijo. Some quietly prefer the man advising on the selection, Scott Crossfield. The reknowned test pilot was first to fly at twice the speed of sound and could energize public attention.

The Wrights made nearly 1,200 flight tests in their glider between Sept. 19 and Oct. 24, 1902, and today’s pilot candidates are doing the same. Last year, Discovery of Flight landed a major gift from Northrop Grumman for pilot training in the foundation’s reproduction 1902 Wright glider, 1902 flight simulator and 1903 Flyer simulator. Northrop Grumman also commissioned a Wright Model B from Hyde’s team for its own promotional tour lasting through 2008, beginning with the Paris Air Show this June.

Ford Motor corralled other sponsors, including Documentum, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard, to help The Wright Experience build a database for thousands of historic news clippings, handwritten notes and Flyer research. Ford also teamed with Discovery Channel School to publish a kit telling the stories of the Wrights and Henry Ford for middle and junior high schools. Discovery Channel will air three specials this year examining Henry Ford’s close relationship with aviation, particularly his principles of mass production. On December 17, Discovery will telecast live from Kitty Hawk.

Bruce Williams hopes the flurry of Flyers builds excitement for the virtual version. Flight Simulator 2004 will be released in July at $54.95 a copy, which will include 24 historic aircraft beginning with the 1903 Flyer, in addition to 15 modern aircraft, including the Robinson R22, flyable at 24,000 airports.