Countdown to Kitty Hawk

By William A. Ford, Design and Production Editor
Air Line Pilot, May 2003, p. 23

The eyes of the world will be on EAA’s Wright Flyer this coming December 17 as we attempt to recreate the Wright brothers’ first powered flight on the dunes of [Kitty Hawk] North Carolina," pronounced Tom Poberezny, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association and commissioner of the U.S. Centennial of Flight. Speaking at the "rollout" of their re-creation of the 1903 Wright Flyer that EAA and other organizations are sponsoring, Poberezny went on to say, "This Wright Flyer reproduction represents a long-standing commitment by EAA and its partners to preserve the Wright brothers’ legacy and their unbridled spirit of innovation that forever changed our world."

The 1903 Wright Flyer reproduction, that Capt. Ken Hyde (American, Ret.) and his team at The Wright Experience built (see "Celebrating the Wright Brothers Centennial," November/December 2001), was unveiled to the public at ceremonies at Washington National Airport on March 18. After the rollout, the Flyer began a tour around the United States (see "Wright Flyer 2003 Tour Schedule," page 25) before the centennial flight in December.

At the rollout, Capt. Hyde stated, "Building a Wright Flyer replica that looks like the first airplane is relatively easy, but building one that is an exact reproduction is very difficult. Building this Flyer was the ultimate reverse-engineering job with a major catch—we had to ignore what we have learned over the past 100 years and embrace the Wright brothers’ way of thinking."

On hand at the airplane’s unveiling were Amanda Wright Lane and her brother, Stephen Wright, great-great-grand-niece and -nephew of Wilbur and Orville Wright; Poberezny; Capt. Hyde; renowned test pilot Scott Crossfield; and Willard Scott of NBC’s "Today Show"; and others. Centennial of Flight Celebration partners at the unveiling included Jan Valentic, vice-president of global marketing for Ford Motor Company, the presenting sponsor of EAA’s Countdown to Kitty Hawk; Bruce Williams, business development manager for Microsoft Flight Simulator; and Jack Harrington, vice-president of business affairs of Eclipse Aviation Corp.

Will the Flyer fly?

"I’m here to tell you that this 1903 Wright Flyer reproduction will fly," declared Dr. Robert L. Ash, interim vice-president for research at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. Dr. Ash supervised the wind-tunnel tests of the Wright Flyer and Wright propeller designs in the University’s Langley Full-Scale Wind Tunnel. "While that [statement] may sound a little presumptuous," Dr. Ash said, "you need to know that for the first time since December 17, 1903, a flying machine built exactly like the original was able to generate sufficient thrust to overcome drag and sufficient lift to overcome its weight….

"The 1903 Wright Flyer reproduction tested in our wind tunnel is arguably more accurate than the 60- to 70-percent original Wright Flyer hanging in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum." Dr. Ash explained that his statement "may seem a bit bold, [but] keep in mind the original was flightworthy for less than 3 hours on that cold day in December 1903. The machine was nearly destroyed by a gust after its fourth flight. The next year, the original propellers and possibly other parts were used (and broken) while building the 1904 Flyer. All the remaining original parts also had to survive a major flood that occurred in Dayton in 1913. That certainly does not detract from the historical importance, but there are no plans to fly that world’s first powered, piloted, and controlled flying machine—ever again.

"Even though our results [of the wind-tunnel tests] are preliminary," Dr. Ash said, "we can report the following: First, it appears that the original Flyer engine was producing more than 12 horsepower (closer to 14) during its fourth flight.

"Second, and this is the most intriguing result so far, the Wright Flyer was unstable in all three axes. That actually was not such a surprise in itself," Dr. Ash said, "but the fact that none of the Wright Flyer controls (canard, wing warping, and aft rudder) produced sufficient forces to control a stable flying machine was a surprise. The Wright brothers actually exploited the airplane’s instability in pitch, roll, and yaw, thus enabling their marginal control elements to maintain their flying machine.

Though highly nonlinear, the 1903 Wright Flyer reproduction is therefore capable of powered and controlled flight," Dr. Ash said.

Who will fly the Flyer?

Four candidates have been chosen to undergo training, sponsored by Northrop Grumman, to fly the Flyer on the centennial:

• Dr. Kevin Kochersberger, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology;

• Capt. Terry Queijo (American);

• Capt. Chris Johnson (American), also a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserves; and

• Capt. Ken Hyde (American, Ret.), builder of the Flyer and the person who probably knows more about it than anyone else in the world.

The "Pilots of the Century" flight training program will be headed up by legendary research pilot Scott Crossfield. Crossfield made aeronautical history on Nov. 20, 1953, as the first person to fly at Mach 2.

Everything the pilot candidates have learned will have to be unlearned to fly the Flyer because of its unusual controls. In the Flyer the pilot lies prone on the lower wing. The stick, operated by the left hand, controls only the elevator. For lateral control, a hip cradle mounted on the lower wing is moved from side to side to warp the wings and turn the rudder.

After training, only two of the four candidates will be chosen to fly at the First Flight Centennial Celebration at the Wright Brothers National Memorial near Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 2003. "They’ll flip a coin, just as the brothers did a century ago," says Crossfield, "to see who will fly the airplane if——. Learning how to fly an unstable aircraft is going to be a very difficult task because no one has had to do so for nearly 100 years. But we will do it."

The National Park Service has granted exclusive rights to EAA and The Wright Experience to reenact the flight on the centennial.

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Wright Flyer 2003 Tour Schedule

June 13-16    Ford Motor Company’s 100th Anniversary Celebration in Dearborn, Mich.
July 3-20    Inventing Flight: Dayton 2003 in Dayton, Ohio
July 29-August 4    EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wis.
August 23-September 1    Museum of Flight in Seattle, Wash.
October 7-9    National Business Aviation Association’s 56th Annual Meeting & Convention in Orlando, Fla.
December 12-17    First Flight Centennial Celebration in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
In early 2004, EAA’s 1903 Wright Flyer reproduction will become part of a new aviation display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.