Wright Brothers' Path to First Flight Being Re-Created

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
November 9, 2001

For the past week, engineers led by retired commercial pilot Ken Hyde have tried to experience the trials and tribulations of the Wright brothers by testing a reproduction of their 1901 glider at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

The goal of Hyde and his collaborators is to relive the dawn of aviation history by rebuilding and testing the series of kites and gliders that Wilbur and Orville Wright built at the turn of the 20th century.

"We are trying to rebuild, retrace, and evaluate," said Hyde. "We want to find out how and why the Wright brothers were able to discover the secrets of flight in four years, whereas the whole academic community had spent hundreds of years trying to discover that and were unsuccessful," he added.

Wilbur Wright had planned to write a book describing the design and flights of all the gliders and planes that he and his brother had built and tested. But he died in 1912, and his brother Orville never took up the task.

Because none of the original blueprints exist, Hyde and his colleagues have rebuilt the Wright's 1901 glider based on grainy black and white photographs, descriptions in notebooks, and court depositions.

"By building this 1901 glider, and testing the propellers and building all of the aircraft, we'll go back and re-engineer all the processes and fill in the puzzle pieces that are missing in their files, in their paperwork," said Hyde.

The 1901 glider was a source of much frustration. Some reports say that it initially flew equally well when launched backwards off of a hill. After some alterations, the glider completed more than 100 flights, some almost as far as 400 feet (120 meters). But it was still very difficult to control.

After disappointing flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, during the summer of 1901, the brothers built a wind tunnel and began making and testing several hundred airfoils. This systematic approach, which is still used today, enabled the brothers to rapidly test wing designs, and thus marked a turning point in the Wright brother's strategy.

At Langley Research Center, a full-scale reproduction of the 1901 glider sits mounted on a pole in front of two enormous propellers, which produce winds comparable to those encountered in flight.

"The wind tunnel allows us to study how the glider handled at high and low speeds, to measure its drag and lift," said mechanical engineer Kevin Kochersberger of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, who is running the wind tunnel tests.

Continued on Next Page >>


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