| The Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. (Reuters)
Bolingbrook (Illinois) Dec. 18 (Reuters): In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright built and flew the first airplane and launched modern aviation, but nearly 100 years later modern aviation is still not sure how the two brothers did it.
At least four teams of craftsmen and scientists across the US are building replicas of that first wood-and-fabric airplane to learn how the Wrights, two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, with no college education succeeded when other inventors of the day failed.
These replicas are intended to fly on or before December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wrights’ first flight.
“The actual beginning of it is not understood that well. If you think about the prevalence of air transportation in our society, we don’t really know how they did it,” said Tom Norton, a member of the Wright Redux Association, which is building a replica at a small airport in this suburban Chicago town.
Even with the aid of computers and space-age testing systems, the builders of these replicas are still keeping their fingers crossed that their airplanes will fly.
The projects are hampered by a lack of complete Wright Brothers plans, a lack of materials used in 1903, and a lack of craftsmen who have the skills to work on something designed so long ago.
The Wright Redux airplane will closely match the original, including the muslin fabric on the upper and lower wings, an identical four-cylinder engine, and the same crude controls.
The pilot will lie in a wooden cradle on the lower wing and steer by shifting the cradle with his hips, just like Orville Wright did when he piloted the first flight 36 metres in 1903.
The Wright Redux airplane is to fly next December 17 from the lawn at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. After that it will be donated to the museum.
The Wrights’ first flights were at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. There were four flights on December 17, 1903, the longest being 258 metres, before the airplane was destroyed by a gust of wind.
Another replica, commissioned by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) in Warrenton, Virginia, is scheduled to fly at Kitty Hawk on the centennial date.
It is also being built with materials like those used on the original. But the builders are using computers, a space-age wind tunnel, and a high-tech flight simulator during construction and testing.
This replica is part of a $5 million privately funded project that includes assistance from the Ford Motor Company, Microsoft, and Eclipse Aviation.
“This is more of a research project. We have put a man on the moon but we have not built an authentic Wright airplane and flown it. So we don’t really know how they did it,” said Ken Hyde, a retired American Airlines pilot and founder of a group called the Wright Experience, which is building the EAA’s replica.
After the flight, the Wright Experience airplane will be donated to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Students at Utah State University are taking a slightly different approach with their Wright replica.
They are using modern materials such as graphite and Kevlar and will power the craft with a modern motorcycle engine.
“We are going to fly it in July in Dayton, Ohio, the home of the Wright Brothers, and (former) Senator Jake Garn is going to be at the controls,” said Trina Paskett, spokeswoman for the Utah State project.
In California, a team of aerospace professionals with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)is building a Wright replica with some minor changes.
Using Nasa testing facilities, the team deviated from the original’s design to ensure a safe and stable airplane.
“An exact replica would be very unstable and very dangerous to fly,” said Jack Cherne, leader of the AIAA project.
“We don’t want to kill ourselves. We are making some changes to the aerodynamics based on the wind tunnel tests.” A control stick, similar to what is found on some airplanes today, will replace the cradle.”