Rebuilding the Genius Machines

From original notes, sketchy blueprints, and blurry old photos, engineers are building the most accurate reproduction of the 1903 Wright Brothers flyer ever made. What they are learning amazes them.

In August 1901, the Wright brothers were ready to give up. They had spent a frustrating summer testing their latest glider on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and nothing seemed to go as planned. The glider, a biplane with a 22-foot wingspan, was difficult to control and almost killed Wilbur. It proved even less maneuverable than the glider the Wrights had built and flown the previous year. Wilbur, nursing bruises from his crash in the dunes, was especially depressed. During the train ride home to Dayton, Ohio, he turned to Orville and said, “Not within a thousand years will man ever fly.”

And yet only two years later, on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers flew. The toss of a coin made Orville the pilot; Wilbur remained on the ground. A Kitty Hawk local used Orville’s big box camera to record the world’s first powered flight at 10:35 a.m. on a cold, windy morning. The old black-and-white photo freezes Wilbur in a posture of surprise, as if he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. Just seconds before, he had been sprinting during the takeoff, holding on to the right wing to help balance the plane his brother was piloting into a 27-mile-per-hour wind-and into history. If you look closely you can see 14 footprints Wilbur left in the sand.

Almost a century has passed since that day on the beach, and experts are still trying to understand how two men who never finished high school managed to fulfill an age-old human dream. In just four years the Wrights advanced from building kites to constructing a motorized, 605-pound airplane made largely of spruce, ash, and muslin that carried Orville 120 feet in 12 seconds.

“The view has always been that they were a couple of lucky bicycle mechanics,” says Ken Hyde, 63, a retired American Airlines pilot and restorer of antique aircraft. But Hyde-who has been commissioned by the Experimental Aircraft Association of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to reconstruct the Wrights’ plane for an anniversary flight at precisely 10:35 on December 17, 2003-knows the Wrights’ achievement was no accident. Funded by the Ford Motor Co. and private donations, Hyde has assembled a diverse group of artisans, mechanics, and engineers to recreate not only the ’03 flyer but also the entire array of kites, gliders, and planes the brothers built in their career. Every nail, spar, rib, and joint in the reconstructions, even the tool marks on the hand-carved wood propellers, will faithfully mimic the Wrights’ work. “What we’re doing is clearly demonstrating that these two gentlemen had a very scientific approach,” Hyde says.

Before they could build the world’s first plane, the Wrights had to discover the mechanics of flight. The brothers were the first to understand that a successful aircraft would need separate control mechanisms for each dimension, an insight that came from years of deep thought-and often hazardous trial runs. While their European competitors were making uncontrolled hops in gliders, the Wrights were building a plane with all the essential mechanisms of modern aircraft: a rudder to control horizontal movement, or yaw; an elevator to direct vertical motion, or pitch; and the “wing warping” system that would allow the plane to bank, or roll. Fearful of revealing hard-won secrets, Wilbur and Orville were reluctant to perform demonstration flights. As a result, their genius wasn’t immediately recognized-the French called them bluffeurs-even after their success at Kitty Hawk. The world didn’t see the Wrights take to the air until 1908, when Wilbur flew figure eights over astonished crowds in France.

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.”

Back in 1901, the Wright brothers could never have anticipated the reverence future generations would have for their work. It was a year of failures, one in which they felt bitterly frustrated. “1901 was probably their most critical year,” says Hyde. “They talked about giving up. But they didn’t give up.”

Wilbur did the flying that summer of ’01 at Kitty Hawk, a location the Wrights chose after carefully studying Weather Bureau data from around the country. Kitty Hawk had steady winds-and sand to cushion crash landings. It had only been five years since Wilbur and Orville decided to try to build the world’s first powered airplane. The death of a renowned German glider pilot, Otto Lilienthal, in an 1896 crash, reported in newspapers around the world, had captured the brothers’ attention. They were working as bicycle mechanics and builders in Dayton, with their own high-priced line of Wright special models. Talented and restless, they were eager to devote their lives to a grand dream. Wilbur, born in 1867, was the oldest, and usually the spokesman. The two lifelong bachelors were extremely close, and incredibly productive.

Beginning in 1899 with the construction of biplane kites, they progressed to building biplane gliders capable of carrying one pilot, lying flat on the lower wing, in flights of 300 feet or more. In 1901, they built the largest glider ever made: It had a 22-foot wingspan. They based it on data gleaned from Lilienthal’s published research.

Their big glider flew, but not the way it should have. The Wrights had expected to be able to fly in 18-mile-per-hour winds. But the glider refused to remain airborne unless the winds exceeded 23 miles per hour. And when it did fly, the plane was dangerously difficult to maneuver. One crash threw Wilbur right through the elevator, cutting his face and bruising him badly. “When they got home after the disappointments of that summer, they started thinking that maybe Lilienthal’s tables were wrong,” says Hyde. “That was unheard of, because this was a man who was the father of gliding. It would almost be like questioning Einstein’s authority today.”

But the Wrights saw no alternative. They began to devise tests, crude at first but increasingly sophisticated, to measure the performance of different wing cross sections, or airfoils. Naturally enough, their first experiments involved a bicycle.

In Hyde’s hangar, just opposite the ’03 flyer, is an unusual bicycle, a replica of the one the Wrights used in their early airfoil tests. The bike looks like a classic old English-style men’s three-speed, except for the wheel mounted horizontally across the handlebars. Attached to upright rods on the rim of that horizontal wheel are two small metal plates, one flat, one slightly convex. The convex plate is the airfoil; it presents the same profile to the wind as does the wing of a glider.

According to Lilienthal’s tables, the pressure from the wind on the flat plate should equal the pressure-or lift-on the airfoil set at a 5-degree angle to the wind. Thus the wheel should remain stationary. But when the Wrights carried out their experiment, pedaling through the streets of Dayton, the pressure on the plate was higher than the lift on the airfoil, and the wheel turned toward the plate. Lilienthal was wrong.

To find the most efficient shape for the wings of their plane, the brothers next needed to perform more systematic tests. Their modified bicycle couldn’t provide the precision they wanted-after all, they would be staking their lives on the accuracy of their data. So they built a wind tunnel, the first from which anyone obtained any useful data.

And so, of course, has Hyde. His wind tunnel, a rectangular wooden box, is identical to the Wrights’ original: 6 feet long, 16 inches high. An electric fan at one end of the box pushes a steady stream of air at 27 miles per hour toward a delicate balance, made from hacksaw blades and bicycle spokes, positioned at the opposite end of the tunnel.

The Wrights suspended various airfoils on one side of the balance, and a standard flat plate on the other. The flat plate served as a reference, much as it had on their bicycle experiment, enabling the Wrights to calibrate a simple gauge that they attached to the balance. With this arrangement they methodically tested more than 200 airfoils, producing remarkably accurate data on lift and determining the ideal wing shape for their plane. In the attic of their Dayton workshop, they were laying the experimental groundwork for the science of aeronautics.

“We’re discovering just how brilliant these two people were in solving complex problems,” says Kevin Kochersberger, a mechanical engineer from the Rochester Institute of Technology. “It was their redesign and retesting year after year that allowed them to get to the level where they could solve the most complex problem-powered flight.”

With the data from their wind tunnel tests the Wrights proceeded to build what is probably the second most important plane in the world, their 1902 glider. They had honed all the control mechanisms. A moveable rudder on the tail directed the plane’s horizontal motion, or yaw. An elevator in front-essentially a small wing-could be angled up or down to change altitude. By shifting his hips left or right in a cradle attached to the lower wing, the pilot pulled cables that twisted one wing up and the other down, sending the plane into a turn. That summer, the new glider’s performance at Kitty Hawk surpassed the brothers’ expectations. Wilbur’s best flight covered just over 622 feet and lasted for 26 seconds.

Indeed, when the Wrights filed their patent application, it was for the design of the ’02 glider, not the powered airplane of 1903. For the Wrights, the addition of the gasoline engine was a minor advance compared with the airfoil design and control mechanisms they had perfected. Now the brothers were confident that they would fly a powered version of their plane the next time they returned to Kitty Hawk.

That winter, the Wrights began building their engine. When they were done, they had a 12-horsepower, four-cylinder engine that weighed 152 pounds. It was more than sufficient, allowing them to build a bigger, heavier plane than they had planned. The plane’s fuel tank held enough gasoline for 18 minutes of flight. Orville’s first flight lasted just 12 seconds and covered less than the distance spanned by the wings of a modern passenger jet. But those few seconds changed the world.

For all its graceful lines, the ’03 plane looks decidedly strange to the modern eye. Two propellers are stationed behind the wings. The elevator is mounted not as a crosspiece on the tail, as in today’s planes, but out in front like a bowsprit. To reduce drag, the pilot lay prone on the lower wing, stretched out on his stomach just inches from the ear-splitting engine. His right hand gripped a wooden lever to control the elevator. Cables moved the wings to make a turn: “wing warping,” as the Wrights called it, was the forerunner of ailerons on modern aircraft. Aside from the wings, only the two vertical rudders on the tail of the plane look at all familiar.

Over the next decade the Wrights kept improving their design. By 1908, when they first demonstrated their craft in Europe, they were able to carry a passenger, who sat beside the pilot in a corduroy-upholstered seat. After one such demo flight, the London Daily Mirror ran a front-page story: “The Most Wonderful Flying Machine That Has Ever Been Made.”

Hyde and his team are now at the stage the Wrights were at in 1902. They have a design they’re confident will fly, and they will soon have an engine and propellers to power it. Two machinists Hyde met at an air show, the brothers Steve and Jim Hay, are hand-building a copy of the 1903 engine. Master mechanic Greg Cone, who with his walrus moustache seems himself to belong in some faded photograph, is cleaning the Wrights’ 1904 Engine #3, on loan from the Dayton Engineers Club. This particular engine was the prototype for all the brothers’ future engines. “Everything in here has a story a mile long,” Cone says.

Once the engine, propellers, and muslin skin are in place, Hyde will test his plane in a NASA wind tunnel operated by Old Dominion University in Langley, Virginia. Next spring, someone on his team will fly the plane before it’s shipped to Kitty Hawk for the centennial. The pilot will prepare on a flight simulator and on the reconstructed 1902 glider.

Does Hyde ever doubt that his creation will get off the ground? After all, Wilbur crashed the ’03 plane on the last of the four flights it made that December 17. “Somebody asked me that question for the first time about two months ago,” he says. “I’d never really thought about it because we know theirs flew, so there’s been no doubt in my mind that if we copy theirs, ours will fly. If we are true to what they did, then we’ll be successful.” Kochersberger, who’s studied wind tunnel tests of the Hyde team’s reproductions of early Wright gliders, also believes the ’03 reconstruction will fly.

Oddly enough, Hyde’s craft will be a more accurate copy of the plane Orville flew in 1903 than the original Wright airplane that’s suspended above the lobby of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian plane, assembled partly from pieces of the ’03 flyer salvaged after it crashed, and partly from pieces cannibalized from other Wright machines, could never fly, says Hyde.

Hyde hopes his team will fly at least twice on December 17, 2003. Once to repeat Orville’s 12-second, 120-foot journey, and a second time to match Wilbur’s last flight of that historic day, which carried him 852 feet in 59 seconds. Perhaps the crowd watching will feel the way a French reporter did when he first saw the Wrights fly. “I’ve seen him! I’ve seen them! Yes! I have today seen Wilbur Wright and his great white bird, the beautiful mechanical bird. There is no doubt. Wilbur and Orville Wright have well and truly flown.”


From biplane kites the Wrights graduate to gliders. During their first trip to Kitty Hawk, they fly a homemade biplane glider with a 17-foot wingspan. Back in Dayton, they draw up plans for a larger glider with better controls and landing gear.

The brothers build the largest glider ever-a 100-pound monster with a 22-foot wingspan-but it performs poorly at Kitty Hawk. Though close to despair, upon returning to Dayton they build a wind tunnel to find out what they have been doing wrong.

Data gleaned from their wind tunnel tests enable the Wrights to build a glider with precision controls. Cables bend the wings for turns and a rudder makes it possible to steer. The brothers are now convinced they can build a powered plane.

On December 17 at 10:35 a.m., Orville flies a 605-pound plane, equipped with two rear-mounted propellers and powered by a 12-hp engine, for about 120 feet in 12 seconds-the first successful powered flight in history.

The Wrights finally begin demonstrating their planes in public and become world famous. Below, Wilbur shows King Alfonso XIII of Spain the controls in Pau, France. Borrowing heavily from the Wrights, European aviators start building their own planes.

A Wright brothers plane called the Vin Fizz (after its soft drink sponsor) becomes the first to fly across the country, completing the trip in 84 days with 70 stops.

The Wright brothers’ first powered flight, on a secluded beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was greeted by most of the world with monumental indifference, even disbelief. Not so, however, by Popular Science.

Just three months after the 12-second, 120-foot flight on December 17, 1903, we had the story. In “Aerial Navigation,” author Octave Chanute was appreciative, if low-key: “A successful dynamic flying machine seems to have been produced by the Messrs. Wright,” he wrote. “These gentlemen have placed the rudder up front, where it proves more effective than in the rear, and have placed the operator horizontally on the machine, thus diminishing by four-fifths the resistance of the man’s body from that which obtained with their predecessors.”

Popular Science kept its eye on the publicity-shy brothers. In 1908 we reported on demonstration flights by Wilbur in Le Mans, France, and by Orville in Fort Myer, Virginia. When Wilbur flew 56 miles in 91 minutes, the French ordered 30 planes and awarded a 20,000-franc prize. A Wright flyer soon became the first plane purchased by the U.S. military. It exceeded the War Department’s specifications-a speed of 40 miles per hour over 125 miles. The government contract was for $25,000.

In January 1929, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Wrights’ achievement, we kicked off a four-part tribute that followed the brothers from their boyhood inquiries into the mechanics of flight to the days when kings and princes begged them for a single plane ride. Writer John R. McMahon rhapsodized: “Tomorrow we can see the sky roads crowded with planes-all born of the Wright bros.’ immortal discovery.”

Bob Sillery

by Brown Brothers, Sterling, PA

Undated photograph of Orville (left) and Wilbur Wright.

Photograph by Brent Humphreys

Master mechanic Greg Cone wishes he’d lived a century ago, when the workmanship on a 4-cylinder engine was masterful.