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Testing history

In the years leading up to their historic flight, Orville and Wilbur Wright battled challenge after challenge. Aviators trying to re-create the feat this week have shared the highs and lows.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published December 14, 2003

[AP photo]
Orville Wright is at the controls of the Wright Flyer as Wilber watches during the plane's first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. on Dec. 17, 1903. The first flight was 120 feet.

It isn't easy to fly back in time.

The modern pilots who are trying to fly Wright brothers replicas are seasoned aviators who have relied on sophisticated computers and a century of aviation history. But they've had trouble getting off the ground.

Several groups built replicas of the 1903 Flyer to mark Wednesday's 100th anniversary of the first flight. They've had some wild rides and several crashes.

No one knows if the Wright Experience, which will re-create the flight at the centennial celebration in North Carolina, will be able to achieve what Wilbur and Orville did. The group had a successful test flight last month but crashed the plane in a more recent test.

The 1903 Flyer "doesn't handle that well," said Tom Crouch, a Wright brothers historian. "It's the first, after all."

The Wrights' plane, with its 40-foot wingspan and 170-pound engine, is difficult to control.

Kevin Kochersberger, a pilot for the Wright Experience, says the plane is "twitchy." He says the first second after takeoff is very challenging because "everything is happening at once."

Mike Gillian, who recently flew a replica for Wright Redux, a Chicago group, said the plane has a tendency to gyrate up and down like a porpoise.

"Flying it is more of an intellectual exercise than a physical one," he said. "You are constantly trying to stop it from going up and down."

An ingenious design

The Wright brothers, who launched their quest in 1899, got plenty of bumps and bruises as they learned to fly. But they were not seriously injured because the gliders and 1903 Flyer were so slow.

Inspired by turkey vultures and a twisting cardboard box, the brothers from Dayton, Ohio, solved a problem that had confounded many other designers: how to make a plane bank left and right.

They devised an ingenious wing-warping system the pilot controlled by shifting his hips. They were owners of a bicycle shop, so they used bike chains and sprockets for the engine and flight controls.

They spent months testing full-size gliders to refine their flight control system. Their tests at Kitty Hawk often ended with crashes.

After the glider tests finally succeeded, Orville wrote to his sister Katharine, "We now hold all the records! ... the longest time in the air, the smallest angle of descent and the highest wind!!!"

When they failed to find manufacturers willing to build an engine, they designed their own and enlisted an employee at their bike shop to construct it.

On Dec.14, 1903, Wilbur won a coin toss to decide who would fly first, but he lifted off too sharply and the plane slammed to the ground.

They repaired the plane and waited for good weather. It arrived on Dec.17, with winds of 20 to 27 mph. The strong winds would provide additional lift.

The first flight was 120 feet. Orville described it like this:

"It was only a flight of 12 seconds and it was uncertain, wavy, creeping sort of flight at best; but it was a real flight at last."

"A very small envelope'

At least a half-dozen groups around the country built replicas for the anniversary.

Organizers of those groups say they developed a new appreciation for the Wright brothers and their ingenuity. Rick Young, who is building a replica in Richmond, Va., says he has been inspired by the Wrights' philosophy of life.

"Their philosophy was not relying on what you've been told, but testing and questioning it for yourself," he said.

Most of the replica groups tried to make the planes as accurate as possible, using authentic wood and fabric.

But in doing so, they created flying machines that aren't very good at flying.

"The whole airplane is right on the edge," said Gillian. "The engine is so cantankerous, you definitely need the wind" to provide enough lift.

Without wind, the Wright Redux plane could not get airborne at an event at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in September. It skidded off the track.

The group attempted 14 flights in the past year - most at a suburban airport - and flew five of them.

"You have a very small envelope in which to operate," said Mike Perry, one of the organizers of Wright Redux. "Once you overcommit one way or another, you won't be able to get it back to straight and level."

Ken Hyde, executive director of the Wright Experience, adopted the brothers' meticulousness by conducting his own tests with a replica of their 1902 glider. That helped his pilots understand the unique characteristics of the Wright design.

Hyde, a retired American Airlines pilot who has spent the past few years studying the Wrights, had mixed success with the test flights in the powered 1903 Flyer this year.

"The first couple of flights were pretty dicey," he said. "But then the third flight went quite well."

That one, on Nov.20, went 115 feet and was aloft for 12 seconds, about the same as the Wright's first flight.

Hyde says they have also learned a lot from the crash on Nov.25. The plane was equipped with a small flight data recorder similar to the "black boxes" used on larger aircraft. It provided valuable data about the performance of the plane that should help the pilot on Wednesday.

None of the crash landings of the 1903 Flyers have resulted in any serious injuries.

Crouch, the historian, said Hyde also has an advantage the Wrights did not. They took off from a rail that was about 40 feet long. Hyde's may be as long as 120 feet, which will give his plane more opportunity to build up speed and get airborne, Crouch said.

Hyde's group is the only one re-creating the flight Wednesday at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. It will be part of a program called "Twelve Seconds That Changed the World."

Thousands of people are expected for the daylong festivities, which include appearances by legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon. The event will include a 100-plane flyover and a performance by the Air Force Thunderbirds. The master of ceremonies is actor (and pilot) John Travolta.

Hyde said is he is not concerned about the possibility of crashing again.

"There is always a possibility of some damage to the airplane," he said. "The Wrights experienced that and we are not any different."

He says he is confident the plane is safe and will fly.

"We're ready."

Gillian, pilot of the Wright Redux replica, said the conditions need to be ideal Wednesday. The extended forecast, however, is predicting a mainly cloudy day with rain and highs in the upper 60s and lows in the upper 30s.

"The Wrights really were extremely lucky," he said. "It's almost incredible that everything came together for them and they were able to fly it that one day."

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