Celebrating the Wright Brothers Centennial

Air Line Pilot, November/December 2001, p.22
By Esperison Martinez, Jr., Contributing Editor

Throughout the United States, many aviation enthusiasts and organizations are preparing to celebrate the century anniversary of Orville Wright’s historic first successful powered flight from the sand dune known as Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903, at 10:35 a.m. While many groups and persons will celebrate the Wright brothers’ achievement, for those men and women who today have become air-line pilots, the century mark should have special significance.

For one pilot whose entire life’s experience now seems to have been aimed at that one point in time, the anniversary will see his team’s creation of the only accurate flying reproduction of the original Wright Flyer slide down a wooden rail at Kill Devil Hill. They will duplicate the world’s first three-axis controlled-powered flight of a heavier-than-air craft, carrying a man, to take off under its own power and land at a place not lower than that from which it started.

But the dream of Capt. Ken Hyde (American, Ret.) goes beyond accurately recreating the Wright brothers’ flying machine and its astonishing feat. The important thing for the re-tired airline pilot, he says, "is that the work of the Wrights be preserved for future generations to study and under-stand, 100 years from now, what these remarkable men actually accomplished —and how they accomplished it."

Capt. Hyde is first and foremost a pilot, says Capt. Don McClure (Eastern, Ret.), a former chairman of ALPA’s Accident Investigation Board: "He is a pilot’s pilot. We have been life-long friends, and I have watched Ken’s aircraft restoration interest and skills develop over the years as he sharpened his piloting."

Born in Nokesville, Va., in 1939, Capt. Hyde says, "I grew up with air-planes in the garage." His father, an aviation aficionado, earned his wings in the era of the barnstormers but was a railroad man by profession with a penchant for tinkering with things mechanical.

Another Hyde mentor, Charlie Kulp, better known as the "Flying Farmer" at the Flying Circus airshows in nearby Bealeton, Va., taught the young man maintenance skills and patience for restoring old airplanes.

Capt. Hyde earned both his pilot and his mechanic certificates while still in high school, after which he worked as a mechanic for Capital Air-lines. In 1961, he worked as a copilot/mechanic on specially instrumented aircraft for calibrating world-wide tracking stations for Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. He joined American Airlines in 1965. Capt. Hyde, during his airline career, flew DC-6s, DC-7s, L-188s, and B-727s.

In 1965, Capt. Hyde also founded Virginia Aviation, an antique aircraft restoration company.

Thus his careers as airline pilot and aircraft restorer followed successful parallel paths.

He retired as an American captain in 1998, and owing to his lifelong devotion to flying and restoring, he was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000.

Capt. Hyde’s restoration credits include the clipped-wing Monocoupe "Little Butch," which took EAA Grand Champion honors in 1975. He repeated the honors in 1987 with his 1918 Curtiss Jenny. His restored 1922 Farman Sport, the sole surviving example of its kind, is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul Garber facility in Silver Hill, Md.

One of Capt. Hyde’s two static Wright B Flyers is displayed at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum in Ft. Rucker, Ala., and the other at the College Park, Md., Airport Museum. His Wright gliders are on display at two museums in Richmond, Va.

The Wright Experience

Not until 1992 did the work of the Wright brothers capture Capt. Hyde; that work presented the mysteries that he would eventually become committed to unraveling. At the outset of his quest several years before 1992, he had believed that completing the Wright reproductions would be easy: "I thought it would be a piece of cake, you know—just get some drawings and build this just like you would any other airplane." But he found that the meticulous Wrights put very little of their work on paper or into one resource. "We know what they did, but not how they did it," he says, and he came to realize that fully uncovering and telling the entire story of how these two brothers accomplished what they did would take a full-time commitment.

Working with that realization and moving forward with the idea of reconstructing for the first time an accurate, flying 1903 Wright Flyer, Capt. Hyde in 1998 founded the Wright Experience (WE) project.

The project is focused on discovering the secrets of the Wrights’ pioneering work in aviation. The project’s goal is to keep the Wright brothers’ dream alive by preserving for future generations the secrets that the WE team uncovers. The team plans to "recreate what the brothers did by reverse engineering, so we can fully understand the secrets of their work," says Capt. Hyde.

"While they left no permanent record of their engineering, flight testing, or aircraft development plans," he says, "they did leave behind clues in a great paper trail of writings and letters, as Orville spent his whole life defending the fact that he and his brother were the first to invent the airplane."

Already the WE project has discovered the secrets of and holds in its collection the only remaining original working Wright engine, the Wright vertical four; an accurate reproduction of a 1911 propeller, which has been tested in the NASA Langley full-scale wind tunnel, as have all Wright propellers; and original fabric from the 1903 Flyer, which Wright family members have provided. The fabric is tightly woven muslin used at the time for ladies’ undergarments and sold under the brand name "Pride of the West."

The project has also collected reams of Wright data from sources throughout the United States. It is all stored in black binders, awaiting entry into a computer database for future generations to use.

Marianne Mill Hudec, great-niece of the Wrights, wrote to Capt. Hyde, "I want you to know that in my view the work you are doing would have come first in Uncle Orv’s eyes. No other organization besides yours has devoted itself to validating the science developed by the Wrights. And that is the thing that mattered most of all to them."

Centennial push

With the Wright Centennial year fast approaching, the U.S. Congress, in 1999, created the Centennial of Flight Commission to provide recommendations and advice to the President, Congress, and federal agencies on the most effective ways to encourage and promote national and international commemoration events and to serve as a source of information for those events.

The Commission’s six members include John R. Dailey, Commission chair and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum; FAA Administrator Jane F. Garvey; NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin; Richard T. Howard, president of the First Flight Centennial Foundation; Tom Poberezny, president and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Aviation Foundation; and J. Bradford Tillson of Inventing Flight. A 19-member advisory panel has been named to help the Commission.

Organizations, too, have begun centennial celebration plans. The EAA, in September 2000, unveiled its centennial "Countdown to Kitty Hawk" celebrations, announcing that it had commissioned Capt. Hyde and his Wright Experience to build an authentic flying Wright Flyer to fly at Kill Devil Hill on the anniversary date.

The commissioning agreement calls for the aircraft to be completed by early 2003. The project will cost more than $1 million. The Ford Motor Company has stepped forward as the presenting sponsor of the EAA program.

By the time of the announcement, the Wright Experience had exhaustively studied what information the Wright brothers had left behind, following a chronological sequence and reverse engineering of later Wright technology.

About this, Capt. Hyde says, "Our quest is to discover how the first steps were made—steps that are lost to history. We know how to put a man on the moon, but we have not been successful in flying a true Wright air-plane. The last time one flew was in 1934, and that Model B is now at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

"We are confident," he says, "that we will retrace those first steps and finish the first century of flight as it began, by flying the same path as the
Wright brothers."

The National Park Service has granted the group exclusive rights to fly on the historical site for the centennial.

Aligned with centennial preparations, a group striving to preserve aviation’s history formed in 1999 the Discovery of Flight Foundation, a nonprofit public foundation created to bring together a team of experts to research, redesign, remanufacture, test, analyze, and document authentic Wright brothers gliders, airplanes, original engines, and propellers.

The Discovery of Flight Foundation intends to

• preserve the legacy—the experimentation, discovery, and methodology—of the Wright brothers and other early aviators and aircraft designers;
• help with making accurate replicas of original Wright brothers aircraft;
• create a living classroom that provides inspirational examples of innovation and discovery for school children and people of all ages; and
• attract the resources necessary to fulfill the goals and objectives of the foundation and ensure its financial stability.

Capt. Hyde and the Wright Experience have been commissioned to do the necessary work to meet these goals.

Already, WE is constructing an accurate and flyable Wright 1911 Model B, which will be featured in an upcoming "NOVA" television program. WE intends to construct two Wright Flyers simultaneously—one for EAA’s commission and one for the Discovery of Flight Foundation.

Readers who would like more information may visit the following websites: Discovery of Flight Foundation—www. discoveryofflight.org; The Wright Experience—www. wrightexperience.com; the Experimental Aircraft Association’s program —www. countdowntokittyhawk.com; and the Centennial of Flight Commission—www.centennialofflight.gov.