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Consumer Reports

Building working replica of Wright Flyer proves nearly impossible | (KRT) KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. The Wright brothers made it look easy. After just one minor crash, their 1903 Wright Flyer took off and flew four times in a row.

One hundred years later, some of the nation's most experienced pilots and craftsmen are struggling to replicate that feat. They've taken decades to build a plane that the brothers assembled in a year. They've spent more than $1 million compared with the Wrights' equivalent of $20,000.

In the process, replicators have failed to get off the ground, crashed when they got aloft, broken some bones and bruised some egos.

At least six modern-day teams have taken up the Wright Brothers replica challenge. What they've shown, largely through their crashes, is how remarkable it was that Orville and Wilbur Wright were able to coax that first 605-pound spruce Wright Flyer into the air four straight times on Dec. 17, 1903.

"It's very strange. You think you've got it. You got it 10-15 feet up in the air. You think, `Oh, I figured it out' and then all of sudden it goes left or right," said John Haire, a retired military pilot who tried to duplicate the feat on a simulator at Edwards Air Force Base in California. "How the Wright brothers flew it without breaking their necks is a miracle."

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"The more we have done trying to reproduce that, the more enthralled we were with their amazing capability," said Jack Cherne. He heads a Los Angeles team of volunteers from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics that's spent more than 20 years trying to build an airworthy Wright Flyer. "They were just geniuses."

Of the six teams working on the replicas, most of the pressure is on Ken Hyde's Wright Experience team in Warrenton, Va. The retired airline pilot has spent more than a $1 million in corporate grants on the project, which includes replicas of earlier Wright gliders. Historians and Wright family members say his plane is the most accurate replica.

What really puts him on the spot is that Hyde will try to fly amid fanfare at the Dec. 17 Centennial of Flight celebration at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, N.C.

On Nov. 25, the plane crashed during its second test flight, but Hyde's team fixed the damage within a week.

Calling the crash "as humbling as you can get," Hyde said: "We've got a lot to learn from (the Wrights), that's for sure."

Hyde isn't piloting the 1903 replica; he broke his arm flying an earlier Wright glider replica.

Others have landed with more than a gentle thud.

The Wright Redux Association, a Chicago team, got its version of the Wright Flyer airborne several times but with a souped-up engine. They tried to fly with a replica Wright engine on the front lawn of their sponsoring museum in the Windy City amid media fanfare. They couldn't - not enough headwind.

In October, the association became the first team to get a Wright replica in air with a historically accurate engine. It crashed.

So far, no one's been seriously hurt, and Wright replica-builder Nick Engler said he knows why: "Nobody can get high enough off the ground to do any damage."

Engler, a writer who's been building Wright replicas in the brothers' hometown of Dayton, Ohio, as an educational tool for schoolchildren, made some small changes to the original design, as have teams in Utah and Los Angeles.

"We decided we would do certain things for safety," he said. That includes thicker landing skids and a safety harness to keep the pilot from falling out of the plane.

The Utah plane, designed and built by Utah State University students in Logan, is a combination of the 1903 and 1905 Wright Flyers. It has room for a passenger, and both pilot and passenger are sitting. It also employs space-age carbon-fiber materials.

"A lot of these guys who are doing exact replicas have found out and are going to find out that the Wright Brothers' originals were very difficult to fly," said Nick Alley, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering who designed the Utah State version. "They were unstable. They were difficult to power. They were terrible aircraft by today's standards."

The 1903 plane was flyable only in certain conditions, something that doomed the Chicago team in its museum flight, Engler said. It needed a strong headwind of between 20 and 28 mph and sand dunes to land on. It also needed cold, dry air because it took more power than the original engine could produce for the propellers to push efficiently through moist, warm air. When the Wrights tried to fly in Huffman Prairie in Dayton in the summer of 1904, where the winds aren't as strong or as uniform, they got into trouble, too.

"The four hops they made on Dec. 17, 1903, they probably couldn't have made them on any other day of the year," Engler said. "It was an airplane that flew in an incredibly small envelope, but it showed that it could be done."

Pilots rave about the brief experience in the air in a Wright replica - powered or glider.

Former Utah Sen. Jake Garn, who's flown in the space shuttle, called it an emotional experience.

"I got tearful," said Garn, who test-piloted the Utah version. "I've been sitting here in the wind, flying a replica of the 1905 flyer. My feeling was `I wish my Dad was here to see this.'"

"Flying the glider is as close to human flight as I imagine it could be," said amateur Wright historian Rick Young, a Richmond, Va., restaurateur who's finishing his own 1903 replica. "Because when you lie down on it, you're one with it."

It was, said Engler, another Wright glider flier, "like trying to control a great big leaf that you're floating on."


For more information check out the following Web sites:

The Wright Experience of Warrenton, Va.:

The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company of Dayton:

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Wright Flyer:

The Wright Redux Association of Chicago:

Utah State University Flyer:

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services