Wrights recalled at aviation's 100th

 - May 7, 2008, 10:25 AM

On a blustery day on a deserted beach near Nags Head on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, two brothers began humanity’s controlled adventure away from the surface of the Earth that continues to this day. How Orville and Wilbur Wright did it has become the stuff of legend, how a pair of eccentric, introverted, intensely religious sons of a bishop of the United Brethren Church set themselves up as successful bicycle designers, builders and mechanics, then used that income to finance and develop the world’s first practical heavier-than-air flying machine.

Seeking a place with steady winds and proximity to a passenger railway, the brothers chose a site hard by one of the mammoth dunes that rose above the flat sands of the Outer Banks, a 90-ft mound known locally as Kill Devil Hill.

The legend continues–how on Dec. 14, 1903, after years of experimentation, Wilbur won a coin toss and made the first attempt to fly the machine, only to stall on takeoff, causing some minor damage. The airplane was repaired, and Orville made the next attempt on December 17. At 10:35 a.m. he made the world’s first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. In a tenuous hop lasting only 12 sec and covering just 120 ft, Orville did what men and women had only dreamed of since the birth of human awareness.
The Anniversary Business

With the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight approaching, an entire cottage industry in remembrances has sprung up, some dedicated to the construction of replicas of that original pioneering airplane and some staging throughout next year commemorative events, either at the original Kitty Hawk site (now a national memorial administered by the National Park Service) or elsewhere. Most notable of the events would likely have been the Aviation World’s Fair, which, until its cancellation on October 2 (see box), was scheduled to open its gates April 7 through 27 at an ambitiously large site at Newport News/Williamsburg (Va.) International Airport. Centerpiece of the fair was to have been a five-theme park, with each part highlighting a different facet of flight.

The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co. has a replica Flyer as the centerpiece of a presentation that reflects more on the lives of the brothers than on the major event of their lives. This presentation is housed inside a mobile “first flight” exhibit that’s been traveling throughout the U.S. for the past year and will climax its travels at Kitty Hawk on December 17 next year.                                

For those fascinated by the sight, smell and feel of vintage aircraft, the commitment on the part of The Wright Experience (TWE) to reproduce, as thoroughly as possible, the actual aircraft that Orville and Wilbur Wright flew in 1903 is the most compelling part of all the centennial observations. The machine is now under assembly in Warrenton, Va., roughly 60 mi west of Washington, by members of TWE, whose hopes soar far higher than the recreation of just one of the Wright Brothers designs.

“We intend to build and fly everything the brothers ever designed and flew,” said Ken Hyde, TWE spokesman and one of four selected pilots. That includes a succession of manned and unmanned kites and gliders the brothers tested at Kitty Hawk between 1899 and 1902, along with the much better known Flyers.

Learning from those experiments, the brothers returned to that windy sand-blasted beach in late 1903 with the flying machine with which they would usher in the epoch of flight, the so-called Kitty Hawk Flyer. Later iterations of the basic Wright biplane design, with rudder and the precursor of the elevator out in front, driven by a pair of counterrorating pusher props, included the Huffman Prairie, Dayton, Model A and Military Flyers.

Development of these aircraft consumed much of the brothers’ time over the years 1904 through 1908, climaxing with the triumphant debut of their much improved Model A at a series of 1909 aerial demonstrations throughout France. A subsequent demonstration before a group of U.S. military officials fared less well. Orville had to demonstrate that their invention could carry a passenger, so he took off with a young Army Signal Corps officer, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, on board.

They were making a circuit of the field at Fort Myers, Va., when Orville heard two loud thumps. He cut the engine and tried to land, but the airplane went into a dive, crashing straight into the ground and pinning Orville and Selfridge beneath the wreckage. Orville was hospitalized with several broken ribs and a serious back injury. Selfridge’s skull had been fractured, and he died that evening, the first person to be killed in a powered airplane.

TWE builders have pledged to make their replicas as accurate as possible. This means attempting to locate authentic materials, a daunting task nearly a century later. “Each Flyer requires roughly 125 square yards of an all-cotton muslin known as Pride of the West,” Hyde said. It was a very tightly woven cotton used predominantly in those days for women’s underwear. “We’ve got the specifications but we’re having some trouble finding someone to make it up for us, because when you talk industrial production, the amount we need is very small.”

The undoped fabric will be hand-stretched across a wood and bamboo airframe. Powering that airframe will be a handmade replica of the Wrights’ original 12-hp gasoline engine. Milled out of a solid block of what was in 1903 a mysterious modern material (aluminum), the Wright-designed engine was an innovative piece of extremely high technology for its day.

Like the originals, the replicas are being fashioned from blocks of solid aluminum. Weighing 140 lb and with a cylinder displacement of 201 cu in., the horizontally configured four-holer developed a whopping 12 hp and has been dubbed “a thermal nightmare,” its barely air-cooled parts often glowing dull red after just a few minutes of operation. Later Wright engines would be larger, with a better power-to-weight ratio and more effective vertical cylinder configuration.

Aboard the original Flyer, the engine was located on the right of center on the lower wing, next to the prone pilot. To compensate for this off-center weight, the Wrights made the right wings four inches longer than the left and moved the pilot’s position on the lower wing slightly left of center. The pilot’s hips rested in a cradle that controlled the Wrights’ innovative “wing warping” control system (a relatively crude precursor to the aileron).

Vintage Gas

The Wright Experience’s quest for authenticity extends right down to the fuel these replicas will consume. “Until the beginning of the 20th century, gasoline was largely considered a waste product of the refining process,” said Hayes. “The internal combustion engine was still something of a newcomer and most of the petroleum used in those days was refined to extract the kerosene from it, which was used for illumination and some household heating. The development of more powerful, high-octane aviation fuels was still decades away.”

The fuel used by the Wright Brothers came from what was then the Standard Oil Co., the creation of billionaire John D. Rockefeller. After numerous antitrust rulings, that oil company has been broken into many pieces, the best known of which today is part of the entity doing business as ExxonMobil.

In 1903 the best grade of gasoline available to the Wright Brothers was a rather jumbled mixture of hydrocarbons, a far cry from what we buy at the pump today, with a rating of just 48 octane (one reason for the engine’s modest power output).

For TWE, Exxon chemists brewed up a special 55-gal batch of this brand of crude gasoline, using formulae found in the company’s files. Far too small a consignment to be refined in a modern industrial-scale refinery, this small amount of fuel was brought into being the old-fashioned way, cracked and distilled in an Exxon laboratory.

Currently, the shops of The Wright Experience are assembling a pair of 1903 Flyers; one for Countdown to Kitty Hawk and the other for business aviation tycoon Harry Combs who last month donated the pioneering airplane to the National Park Service to serve as the centerpiece display of a newly remodeled museum and visitor center.

The Crews

The announcement of the selection of the four pilots who will fly the Flyers in both test flight and public presentations came at last summer’s EAA Fly-In at Oshkosh, Wis. Four aviators were selected as the pilots to be trained in a program led by test pilot Scott Crossfield. They are:

• Ken Hyde, Warrenton, Va., retired American Airlines pilot, president and founder of The Wright Experience.

• Terry Queijo, Trappe, Md., copilot of the historic, first all-female flight crew for American Airlines and captain of Boeing 767s and 757s out of Washington, D.C.

• Chris Johnson, Manassas, Va., U.S. Air Force Reserve Major and American Airlines pilot.

• Dr. Kevin Kochersberger, Honeoye Falls, N.Y., associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology and pilot with more than 1,400 hr. He is on sabbatical and leading the testing of the Wright 1901 and 1902 gliders at the Langley Full Scale Tunnel in Hampton, Va., to fly the reproduction 1903 Flyer for the EAA’s Countdown to Kitty Hawk celebration sponsored by Ford Motor Co.

One of these aviators will be at the controls of TWE’s 1903 Flyer on December 17 next year, when the sand flat to the northeast of Kill Devil Hill will be a lot more crowded than it was 100 years before. Then, the brothers first flew in front of an audience consisting of five alternately bemused and amazed onlookers, Coast Guardsmen from a local lifesaving station who were the only humans within many miles in the days when the Outer Banks were a far cry from the year-round vacation attraction they are today.

In photos taken of the area in 1903, the dunes are featureless, lunarlike and stretch to the horizon. Today the press of beach houses and souvenir shops surround the relatively few acres of the National Memorial with the only comparably open space the ocean itself. Even that small amount of acreage will be dark with dignitaries, aircraft and onlookers on aviation’s day of days this time next year.

Among the plans already announced for December 17 next year are a recreation of the Wright Brothers’ first and last powered flights from Dec. 17, 1903; other “historic” aircraft flights of an as-yet-unannounced nature; the flight of the one-millionth EAA Young Eagle; and a presentation of EAA’s 24,000-sq-ft “Countdown to Kitty Hawk Touring Pavilion,” a mobile exhibition that’s been making the rounds nationwide through the summer and will continue to do so throughout next year.

The area of North Carolina surrounding Kitty Hawk will be the nexus of a broad variety of events celebrating the centennial of man’s first powered flight. For a good starting point to get more information on the major 100-year celebration efforts, go to www.nps.gov/wrbr/indepth/centennial.htm.