A re-creation of the first powered flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright a century ago has concluded that they came perilously close to failure.
The pair were spared embarrassment by an unexpectedly efficient propeller and helpful winds, according to a computer simulation of the pioneering 30mph flight by the 1903 Wright Flyer aircraft in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
The study was carried out by the company Fluent in association with the Los Angeles branch of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The Californians have built two full-scale replicas of the Wright Brothers’ aircraft from the blueprints, and plan to fly their newest replica on December 17, the 100th anniversary of the flight.
To contribute to the safety analysis of the replica, Fluent modelled the airflow around the propellers for a range of flight conditions, to reveal some of their aerodynamic secrets.
“The Wright brothers were very fortunate,” said Keith Hanna of Fluent Europe in Sheffield, explaining how the flight had wind coming from the right direction at the optimal speed, coupled with a propeller blade that was more efficient than expected.
“Our work has confirmed the high efficiency of their original propeller, but also how close they were to stall conditions given the engine they used,” added Christoph Hiemcke, who conducted the research at Fluent’s headquarters in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
The propeller had a peak efficiency of about 70 per cent, more than Wilbur’s prediction of 66 per cent and quite respectable compared with the highest achieved today, of about 85 per cent.
Hiemcke said: “Their aircraft actually came in 75lb heavier than their original plan, but because their propeller was more efficient than they predicted and they had good headwind conditions they were able to produce the first successful powered flight by a man.”
The analysis of the Wright Flyer propeller blade was based on a copy of the blueprints of the 1903 propellers, which were hand-carved from spruce by Wilbur Wright.