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"Replica shows Wright brothers' plane nearly impossible to fly"



Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Replica shows Wright brothers' plane nearly impossible to fly
BY ANDREW BRIDGES


EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) -- Aviation experts building a flying replica of the
world's first airplane have found the Wright stuff was a little wrong.

Orville and Wilbur Wright made four brief flights Dec. 17, 1903, marking the
first time a manned, heavier-than-air plane sustained powered flight. That
same day, a gust of wind mangled their handmade aircraft and it never flew
again.

Now, new research on the 1903 Flyer -- including by Air Force test pilots
who flew a jet modified to behave like the original plane -- shows the birth
of aviation could well have meant the death of the Wrights that winter day.

"I'd say it was almost a miracle they were able to fly it," said Jack
Cherne, a TRW Inc. engineer who is chairman of the Wright Flyer Project,
sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of
Aeronautics and Astronautics.

The group is one of at least three nationwide that aim to complete flying
reproductions in time for the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers'
flights near Kitty Hawk, N.C.

None, however, has accumulated the wealth of data that the AIAA group has on
the 1903 Flyer, which was later reconstructed and is now on display at the
Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

In recent years, the group conducted extensive wind tunnel tests of both
one-sixth and one-eighth scale models -- as well as of a non-flying
full-scale version -- of the 1903 Flyer.

Using that data, they created a computer flight simulator that shows what
the Wrights found out the hard way: the plane is so unstable, it is nearly
impossible to fly.

"It's like balancing a yardstick on one finger, two at one time. If you lose
it, it goes -- quickly," said Fred Culick, a professor of aeronautics at the
California Institute of Technology who is first in line to pilot the plane.

The exercise also humbled Air Force test pilots, each with hundreds of hours
of experience flying the world's most advanced aircraft, when they recently
tried their hands at the stick.

"Every pilot, his first try, crashed the simulator. It took less than a
second. That's how quickly it gets away from you," said Capt. Tim Jorris,
one of a small group of pilots at Edwards Air Force Base who took turns
flying the simulator as part of a senior project.

The pilots eventually took to the skies in a Learjet 24D programmed to fly
like the original Flyer. Most had to rely on a computer-assisted stability
augmentation system to keep the business jet aloft.

"I thoroughly cannot imagine the Wright brothers, having very little
experience in powered aircraft, getting this airborne and flying," said
Major Mike Jansen. "My respect for what they did went up immediately the
first time I took the controls."

As the project's members begin work on the replica they intend to fly,
perhaps as early as next summer, they are tweaking the Wrights' original
design to improve the plane's performance.

Modifications will include changes to the plane's airfoil, or shape of its
wings, and its canard, which will boost its stability in the crucial pitch
axis. A more powerful Volkswagen engine will drive the twin propellers. And
a computer feedback system will assist the pilot in keeping the plane aloft.

The "stand-off" replica will ultimately seem virtually identical to the
original to the casual observer.

"The only point to this is to give the public the impression of the first
flight -- repeatedly and safely," Culick said.

Ken Hyde, a retired American Airlines pilot who is spearheading his own
effort to complete a flying reproduction, said straying from the original
design defeats the purpose of honoring the Wrights.

Hyde said his The Wright Experience flyer would change nothing from the
original design, except the quality of some materials. He hopes to learn to
fly the airplane -- while tethered in a Virginia wind tunnel -- before
attempting to leave the ground.

"What is the purpose of changing the airplane in the first place? You're not
going to learn their secrets of how they were able to develop flight in such
a short time," Hyde said. "It's certainly not a tribute to them; it's a
tribute to us today."

Members of the AIAA group said their effort balances authenticity with
safety.

"We want the experience, but we don't want to kill ourselves," said Cherne,
who worked on the Apollo moon missions.

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