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How did Wilbur and Orville do it?

March 4, 1999
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EST (1800 GMT)

The Wright brothers replica in the wind tunnel

CNN's Greg Lefevre probes the mystery of the Wright stuff
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How did Orville and Wilbur do it?


Engineers try to crack
long-running aerospace riddle

By San Francisco Bureau Chief Greg Lefevre

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California (CNN) -- Engineers this week are flying an exact replica of the Wright brothers plane in a NASA wind tunnel, trying to solve a 95-year-old mystery.

Only the Wright brothers have been able to fly the plane. Every replica built of it since then has crashed.

"They would get off the ground and immediately plow into the ground," says Jack Cherne, chairman of Wright Flyer Project.

The team hopes with wind tunnel test will offer some clues into how the brothers did it.

A pet educational project

Engineers from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics began their efforts to build and fly a Wright brothers replica in the late 1970s

The goal of the educational project is to repeat the famous 120-foot first powered flight of December 1903.

But so far the plane, as designed, won't stay airborne.

"This airplane is a very unstable airplane and we want to discover some of the same difficulties that they encountered," Cherne says.

How could the Wright brothers fly it if no one else can?

The Wright brothers did have two years of set up and practice before actually making the flight on the sands at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Fred Culick, a professor at Cal Tech, will be the first pilot, if and when the group's replica flies,

"We will know as a result of these tests what small changes we need to make to make it less unstable, so we'll be able to fly it repeatedly, which is the important thing to do."

Culick's project is to make live again to students, aviators, and to themselves, the first powered flight.

A researcher constructs a replica of the wing used by the Wright Brothers   

"We want to demonstrate publicly what the first flight was like," Culick says.

Some of the project engineers are involved in America's space race. One of the crew members has worked on space projects to all but two planets of our solar system. They all share a deep appreciation for the considerable research done by the Wright brothers.

"They were geniuses," Cherne says. "It's amazing what fantastic engineers the Wright brothers were. They developed their own wind tunnel and tested little components of the airplane in the wind tunnel.

"The engine that they used was their own design, their own construction."

Culick says he's read through the brothers' diaries and papers to get a better understanding of the process they followed.

"It was a modern R and D (research and development) program which they developed themselves," he says.

The Wright Flyer Project wants to replicate the historic flight on its centennial, December 17, 2003.

A NASA wind tunnel will be used to measure the plane's lift and drag, as well as an element of flight pilots call "pitching moment."

The latter is what doomed the earlier replicas: It's the tendency of a plane to rise and fall in a cyclical motion, like a porpoise.

Tunnel tests begin later this week. They will be broadcast live by NASA over the Internet and by satellite to schools.

The engineers are plainly hopeful that some young Orville is out there watching from cyberspace and offer his or her own scientific analysis of the test results.

Watch the yarn

The most visible sign of the tests' progress is the yarn -- hundreds of tiny tufts of it, tacked to the plane's wings, canard (front wing) and tail.

"The yarn has to do with trying to see how smoothly the air flow follows the wing," Culick explains. "Now I believe, all of us believe, it doesn't follow it very smoothly."

first flight
The first flight   

So far the engineers know the shape of the wing is a problem. It's too thin, and its arched shape is too pronounced.

But by how much? And how much change will make this plane stable enough fly over and over again?

The NASA wind tunnel at Mountain View, California, has tested most modern aircraft. Parts of the space shuttle were tested here as well.

Peter Zell, NASA's test manager, says he senses the return to history that the Wright Flyer tests bring.

"It's a facility for modern aircraft testing. This is sort of a throwback.

"It's exciting though; this is the first airplane. Everything that's flying today started here."

He notes that some of the flight elements of the Wright brothers' plane are coming back into aeronautical vogue: the canard (forward wing) and the pusher propeller located behind the pilot.

The group has a first-person connection to the Wright brothers. Arvin Basnight knew Orville Wright when Basnight served as a park ranger at the Wright Monument in North Carolina. He came to deeply admire the Wright's methodical approach to flight.

"They pioneered what we call system engineering, research, they found what had gone on in the past, found errors with what had gone on in the past."

He said Orville was always a gentleman, motivated by high ethical standards. When asked how Orville would feel about the test flights today, Basnight said Wright would appreciate the project because it, like the original, was motivated by the quest for knowledge, science, teamwork and fun.

How did Orville and Wilbur do it?

From Kitty Hawk to the red planet
February 2, 1999
Alabama man loves to fly -- and it shows
December 31, 1998
Piece of Wright Brothers' plane may go into space with Glenn
May 7, 1998

Aero Design Team Online
National Park Service - Wright Brothers National Memorial
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics: Wright Flyer Project
California Institute of Technology
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