Text Size

Tunnel Results Will Help Flyer Reproduction Recreate History

The builders of a replica Wright Flyer had passion, modern engineering science and NASA wind tunnel test results helping them try to recreate history.

The historically-accurate reproduction of the Wright Brothers' 1903 biplane was part of the First Flight Centennial Celebration on December 17th, the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight. Ken Hyde, founder of the Wright Experience in Warrenton, Va., has passionately worked for years to uncover the secrets of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the two Ohio bicycle maker brothers credited with making the first successful flight.

Wright flyer replica
The Wright Flyer reproduction ready for testing in the NASA Langley Full-Scale Tunnel.

Hyde and his team have painstakingly recreated propellers, gliders and aircraft in an attempt to figure out just how the Wright brothers flew for 12 seconds in 27 mile an hour winds over the sand dunes of North Carolina's Outer Banks on Dec. 17, 1903.

"We have been working almost ten years on the research aspect of this," said Hyde. "The machine we plan to fly is three years in the building. I have often been asked why we are doing it. The answer is because nobody has done it and it needs to be done."

Four years ago Hyde turned to NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and Old Dominion University (ODU) in nearby Norfolk to better understand the engineering science behind the Wrights' efforts.

Hyde started by bringing wooden propellers, hand crafted to Wright specifications, to the NASA Langley Full Scale Tunnel, owned by NASA Langley and operated by ODU. Then he progressed to authentic reproductions of two Wright gliders and then, earlier this year, the Wright Flyer. All were tested by ODU engineering professors and students.

"The Wright propellers were 20 years ahead of their time," said Professor Robert Ash, Wright test program manager for ODU. "They were able to convert engine power into thrust with the efficiency required to enable a small and heavy gasoline engine to propel the Wright Flyer. The December 17, 1903, flight was not possible without the Wright propeller designs and this contribution has been largely overlooked."

Wright flyer replica engine test
Wright Experience team members prepare the Wright Flyer reproduction for wind tunnel testing.

What the Wrights didn't do was design a stable aircraft, according to Ash and others who studied hours of wind tunnel data not only of the Wright Flyer reproduction, but also two Wright gliders. "Just like their bicycle heritage, the Wrights deliberately exploited instabilities to effect dynamic flight control," said Ash. "Flying the Wright Flyer is like trying to keep a bicycle upright in three dimensions."

The nature of the aircraft affected the way the four Wright Experience pilots trained. They've gotten expert guidance from a simulator, created using the Langley Full Scale Tunnel data, and a former NASA test pilot, Scott Crossfield. Crossfield was the first American to fly at twice the speed of sound, 50 years ago.

"They're all very capable aviators," said Crossfield. "But they've had to unlearn most of what they know about flying stable airplanes. Very few people have flown unstable airplanes. They've been lucky to survive them."

One of those aviators is Kevin Kochersberger, an associate professor from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., who helped oversee most of the wind tunnel tests. During training in North Carolina last month, he successfully got the Flyer reproduction off the ground.

"Being a scientist and engineer are important qualifications for flying this aircraft," said Kochersberger. "I've been looking at the characteristics of the Wright Flyer for four years. Being in the wind tunnel with it really made a difference."

Bob Allen
Langley Research Center