The Wright Stuff
A blue haze fills the late morning sky above Mark Miller’s woodworking shop nestled along the busy railroad tracks in a western suburb of Chicago. Overhead, a Boeing 757 begins its final descent into O’Hare Field. Inside the small shop, Miller is toiling away assembling an exact replica of the aircraft that all of today’s airliners trace their winged lineage to.
Miller is creating a reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer. If everything goes according to plan, the fragile aeroplane will take to the sky in December 2003 to mark the centennial of the world’s first powered flight. No one has ever built and flown an exact replica of the machine that launched a new era.
One hundred years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright were obscure mechanics working in another small shop 300 miles away. After several years of exhaustive research, coupled with frustrating trial and error, they assembled a biwinged aeroplane out of wood, wire and fabric in their bicycle shop in Dayton, OH. Despite tremendous odds, the machine flew for 12 seconds over a distance of 120 feet on a wind-swept beach in Kitty Hawk, NC, on Dec. 17, 1903.
Miller and his nonprofit Wright Redux Association are one of several teams around the United States attempting to recreate history. They are following in the footsteps of the Wright brothers by using age-old techniques to build and fly what amounts to a 40-foot-wide wing equipped with a front stabilizer, a rear rudder, a small motor and two propellers.
Unfortunately, the Wrights were extremely secretive and constantly suspicious. In the early 1900s, many inventors around the world were developing various types of flying machines in hopes of becoming the first to achieve the dream of human flight. The race to fly was the equivalent of today’s efforts to find a cure for AIDS or build a reliable fuel cell-powered automobile.
Because the Wright brothers were notoriously private, their assembly methods were never publicized and many of their original plans were intentionally destroyed. In fact, after their successful 1903 flight, Orville and Wilbur did not fly again in public until 1908.
One of the biggest hurdles faced by Miller was the lack of accurate drawings and blueprints. He contacted the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC), which supplied a set of blueprints created in 1985 when the Wright Flyer was refurbished. Miller also studied old journals and logbooks kept by the Wrights, which revealed some flawed data.
Fortunately, the Wrights created a paper trail by saving hundreds of letters and technical correspondence. Orville spent the rest of his life defending the fact that he and his brother, who died relatively young, were the first to invent the airplane. Numerous people around the world claimed to be first, such as Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont.
"Through further research and reading, I encountered discrepancies and began to realize that the plans weren’t very accurate," says Miller. "Unfortunately, the original aircraft was assembled and disassembled several Arial before the blueprints were ever made."
After its historic flight in 1903, the Wright Flyer was damaged by strong winds blowing across the Kill Devil Hills. The Wright brothers disassembled the plane and shipped it back to Dayton by railroad. After being reassembled and slightly modified, the machine was later damaged in a flood and spent 20 years on display in London before returning to the United States after World War II. Because the Wrights made no blueprints, historians don’t know many assembly secrets, such as how the original wing ribs were built or how much metal was used in the tail fittings.
"The effort to build and fly a replica of the 1903 Wright Flier is a combination of intellectual probing, precise craftsmanship and a lot of painstaking hard work," says Miller. He has been working nights and weekends on the project along with a group of six volunteers.
Miller is not a pilot and he has never built an airplane before in his life. In fact, his daily routine involves building kitchen cabinets and furniture in his small woodworking shop.
When complete, Miller’s aeroplane, which has been nicknamed the "Spirit of Glen Ellyn," will be 21 feet long, 40 feet wide and weigh approximately 750 pounds. Most of the plane is being assembled out of spruce struts, ash ribs, stretched muslin cloth and steel bracing wire.
Long boards of Sitka sprucethe same type of wood used by the Wright brotherswere donated by a local lumber company. The team of volunteers cut the wood and shaped it through a steaming process that was used in the early 1900s.
"The wing ribs were the first thing that we assembled," says Miller. "Although the plane only actually uses about 70 ribs, we assembled several hundred. We also built our own forms and jigs."
Adhesive was used to glue the ribs together. "In order to ensure safety, we used modern adhesives and tools," explains Miller. For instance, the assemblers used a battery-powered screwdriver and a nail gun to attach the ribs to the two wing sections.
Some critical components, such as the prop shaft assembly, were welded for extra strength. All hardware was custom manufactured at a local sheet metal shop.
According to Miller, the Wrights designed the wings to be disassembled for shipment from Dayton to Kitty Hawk. Per their design, the upper wing is made up of three sections which are bolted together and the fabric stitched closed. The sections will be bolted into one complete wing that measures 40 feet, 4 inches, from tip to tip. The upper and lower wing sections will be held together with wire rigging.
The wooden wings are covered with muslin cloth, which was hand-tacked. The Wright brothers chose this particular fabric because it was very tightly woven and had low porosity.
According to Miller, one of the keys to the Wright brothers success was their innovative use of wing warping, which provided flight control and the ability to bank, climb and descend. The wings could be mechanically twisted so that one wing had more lift than the other. By adding a rudder, the Wrights were able to solve the last piece of the puzzle of three-axis controlled flight.
While working on the project, Miller has become fascinated by the Wrights’ creative and mechanical genius. "Despite the efforts of wealthy inventors and college-trained engineers, the brothers succeeded in the race to fly first," he points out with a sense of amazement. "I have immense respect for their knowledge and skills. Their tenacity really got them through a lot of hurdles."
For instance, Miller says the Wrights discovered that flight is rarely stable. They figured out a way to control and balance the three variables of pitch, yaw and roll.
Miller was unable to find a vintage motor to use in his airplane. Fortunately, a local company stepped in and offered to build an engine, which is estimated to cost $120,000.
Packer Engineering Inc. (Naperville, IL) is producing a duplicate of the Wrights’ four-cylinder, 12-hp engine. They are machining 200 parts from scratch, such as sprockets, gears, valve bodies, valve stems, connecting rods, pistons, cylinders and a flywheel.
State-of-the-art technology, such as CAD-CAM and rapid prototyping, is being used to make the castings. The engine block will be made out of A356 aluminum alloy using the lost foam process. A team of Packer engineers will assemble and test the 150-pound motor before it is attached to the lower wing of the Wright Flyer.
The engine will be joined to a transmission designed and fabricated according to Wright specs. Two large metal chains will spin twin propellers at the rear of the plane. The drive chain was manufactured by Diamond Chain Co. (Indianapolis), which is the same company that supplied the Wright brothers 100 years ago. In fact, Miller says the chain was ordered using the same exact part number.
If things go according to plan, Miller will look up in the sky 14 months from now and see his hard work pay off. Unfortunately, Miller says one of the biggest challenges to getting the plane airborne has nothing to do with solving design or assembly challenges. "We’ve been running into a lot of liability issues," laments Miller. "In fact, if faced with all of today’s legal issues, the Wright brothers could never have invented the airplane."
The original Wright Flyer was notoriously unstable and dangerous to fly. According to one observer, "flying it was like trying to balance two yardsticks on the end of a finger on each hand." It required a combination of courage, finesse, balance and pure luck.
First of all, the pilot had to be a precise weight: 140 pounds. To fly the machine, a pilot straddles across the lower wing next to the engine. The plane has only two controls: an engine throttle and a lever to adjust the front canard.
The pilot controls the plane’s lateral movement by warping the wing tips in opposite directions through a series of wires attached to a hip cradle mounted on the lower wing. By shifting his hips from side to side, the pilot controls the wings as well as the rudder.
The Wright Redux Association has selected two local pilots who will attempt to master the challenge. Miller says several test flights will be required to fine-tune the aircraft control system. The pilots will have to learn all the unique idiosyncrasies of the Wright Flyer. If all goes well after several test flights, Miller’s flying machine will soar across the vast front lawn of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in December 2003 to mark the centennial of flight.
The Wright Redux Association is the smallest and most grassroots effort among five independent groups vying to build and fly replicas of the Wright Flyer. Although it has the backing of the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago) and the National Geographic Society (Washington, DC), most of the nonprofit organization’s funds have come from local citizens and businesses. Miller estimates the entire project will cost about $300,000.
In contrast, several rival groups in other parts of the country have some deep-pocketed backers. For instance, the Wright Experience (Warrenton, VA) reportedly has a $2 million budget thanks to sponsorship by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA, Oshkosh, WI) and Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI). Its aircraft has been chosen to fly during special centennial celebrations at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina.
The Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA) is constructing a replica of the Wright Flyer in conjunction with the California Institute of Technology, with backing from several aerospace companies and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which tested the aircraft at its Mountain View, CA, wind tunnel.
A group of students at Utah State University (Logan, UT) are building a replica of the 1905 version of the Wright Flyer with backing from the U.S. Air Force. The fifth and final group of historical aviators, Flugmaschine Wright, is backed by the Virginia Aviation Museum (Sandston, VA).
Miller claims that only his group and the Wright Experience organization are building authentic reproductions. In contrast, the Utah State team is building a plane with 21st century technology. For instance, instead of traditional muslin and spruce, their plane uses kevlar and graphite composites, which results in a 40 percent reduction in weight. The AIAA team is using a different wing shape than the original, plus a 50 hp engine instead of the 12-hp motor used by the Wright brothers.
Unlike the other projects, the Wright Redux Association has a Chicago connection. The Wright brothers owed much of their success to the pioneering work of a Chicago engineer named Octave Chanute. He conducted numerous experiments and corresponded frequently with the Wrights. In fact, after the historic flight on Dec.17, 1903, the first telegram the Wrights sent was to Chanute.
The original Wright Flyer is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum (Washington, DC). The original Wright Cycle Shop is on display at Greenfield Village (Dearborn, MI). Miller’s aircraft will eventually go on display at the Museum of Science and Industry.