Hyde's reproduction of the 1903 Wright flyer is nearly finished, and it is a thing of rare beauty. The muslin cover for the 40-foot-wide wings is not yet attached-Hyde's still trying to find a manufacturer that can reproduce the original fabric, right down to the thread count per square inch. So for now, the plane rests naked on the concrete floor of a hangar next to his house in Warrenton, Virginia, balancing on sled-like wooden runners. (The Wrights didn't add wheels to their planes until 1910.) The pale blond ash and spruce frame of the craft and the 120 precisely curved ash ribs that make up its wings are plainly visible-as intricate, functional, and wonderful as the skeleton of a dinosaur. In old photos, the plane looks primitive, awkward, and flimsy. But here, in Hyde's hangar, the elegance of the Wrights' design is apparent.
Hyde's challenge is nearly as daunting as the one the Wrights faced. The brothers left few blueprints of their inventions. Even the drawings in their 1906 patent (No. 821,393. Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright, of Dayton, Ohio. Flying Machine.) aren't much help. In their efforts to prevent anyone from stealing their ideas, they provided the bare minimum of information. "No one has successfully built an authentic Wright flyer," says Hyde. "We know what the Wrights did. Our goal is to find out how they did it."
To glean those secrets, Hyde relies on old photos, the Wrights' original notes-many scribbled in small, pocket-size notebooks they carried in the field-and a few rare surviving pieces of various Wright airplanes: propellers, engines, even a large piece of muslin that covered the wings of the 1903 flyer. The muslin is on loan from Marianne Miller Hudec, 67, a great-grandniece of Wilbur and Orville.
"It's a piece off the original airplane that flew in December '03," says Hyde, as he carefully unrolls the bundled fabric. The Wrights adopted a type of muslin called Pride of the West that was used to make women's underwear. Examining the fabric has helped Hyde understand the construction of the plane's wings. "For us, it's kind of like looking at the inside of the shroud of Turin," he says. "It shows us where the ribs rubbed, and their width. It shows all the sewing and the seams. There's a lot of information here."
Larry Parks, an aerospace engineer and expert woodcarver, is making the plane's two propellers. Parks has examined original Wright propellers with a microscope, finding marks in the wood that enabled him to determine which tools the Wrights used, and to match them almost stroke for stroke. "We start with about 50 pounds of spruce for each propeller," says Parks. "When we're done we end up with about 9 pounds."
The propellers were among the Wrights' most remarkable achievements. Although propellers had been in use on ships for more than a century, Wilbur and Orville were the first to realize that they are essentially vertical wings that rotate. Dave Meyer, an aeronautical engineer who works full-time for Hyde, has used a computer to analyze the construction of the Wrights' propellers. "When I superimpose one propeller cross section on the next and watch the transition, I see something that was done just brilliantly," he says. "This was one of the first working propellers ever made, and you see how close they got to perfection on their first try. I find it astounding."