A Trip Back in Time
Building a Wright Flyer
By Emily Refermat
When 100 years has passed, it's nice to be able to stop and look back on where you've come from. The Centennial of Powered Flight on Dec. 17 of this year is a time to do just that.
The EAA, as part of this centennial celebration, contracted Ken Hyde, president and co-founder of the Wright Experience, to build a reminder of our past - an exact copy of the 1903 Wright Flyer. (Sponsored by the Ford Motor Co.)
Armed with respect and enthusiasm for the original Flyer, Hyde and the team of assembled artisans, mechanics, and engineers began a two-year process of recreating the aircraft that started it all. And, as fate would have it, that included stepping back in time to look at the world when powered flight was only a dream and two bicycle shop owners with no formal education discovered the secret of powered flight.
Following an invisible trail
The most daunting challenge for Hyde, and the team of craftsmen, was the lack of blueprints and plans that the Wright Brothers left for their inventions. The Wrights had presented drawings for a 1906 patent, but they weren't much help. It seems that in the Wrights' effort to prevent people from stealing and infringing on their ideas, they only provided the barest of information and worked in secret. Hyde and the team instead had to rely on what the brothers did leave behind - letters back to family and friends, notes in the small notebooks the brothers took to the field, the few remaining Wright artifacts, and the grainy black and white photographs taken at the time.
To rediscover the Wrights' genius, Hyde and the team looked at how the Brothers developed their theories about flight and what experiments they used to test their designs.
Wright research techniques revived
Until 1901, the Wrights, inspired to the dream of flight, had been using existing aeronautics data. But after very disappointing results in that summer, they began to question the validity of this data, deciding to test it. Probably due to their familiarity with bicycles, the Wrights' first test used a modified bicycle to measure different wing cross sections - airfoils. Hyde and the team replicated this experiment fashioning a classic looking old English-style men's three-speed with a wheel mounted horizontally across the handlebars. Two vertical rods are attached to the horizontal wheel and each holds a small metal plate. One plate is flat, but the other is slightly convex (the airfoil), acting like the wing of a glider. According to the data the Wrights had available the pressure of the wind on the flat plate should equal the pressure on the airfoil (set at a 5-degree angle to the wind) allowing the wheel to remain stationary. The data was wrong. The pressure was greater on the flat plate and the wheel turned toward it. Not only did this mean that the data was wrong, but it also meant the Wrights had to create more precise and systematic tests to develop their own theories.
The brothers built a wind tunnel and so did Hyde and his researchers. The wind tunnel is a rectangular box made of wood. It's 6 feet long, 16 inches high, and has an electric fan at one end of the box that pushes a steady stream of air at 27 miles per hour toward a delicate balance. Following in the Wrights' experiment, the "new" balance is made from hacksaw blades and bicycle spokes. The Wrights had hung different airfoils on one side of the balance while having a flat plate on the other. This flat plate was a reference and allowed the Wrights to test more than 200 airfoils until they determined the perfect shape for their plane's wing.
Wright brothers' first production aircraft helped start air racing era 100 years ago.
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