The Project to Date


August 1995 saw completion of the non-flying replica for testing in the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC) at NASA Ames Research Center, Mt. View, CA. Fabrication of parts for the flyable 1903 Wright Flyer also had begun in 1994.

To our knowledge, no one has successfully flown a 1903 Wright Flyer, although many have tried in recent years. Some of the reasons have been apparent from the results of two wind tunnel tests performed on scale models.

The full-scale machine for wind tunnel testing is an aerodynamic replica of the original 1903 "Flyer". It is not flyable since some structural changes were required for mounting and testing in the wind tunnel.

Numerous papers have been published, three of which:

describe much of what has been accomplished. The data obtained from wind tunnel tests have been used by members of the AIAA project to analyze the performance, stability and control of the original 1903 Wright Flyer. It appears that despite difficulties in detail with some of the data, we can claim to understand quite well the flight characteristics of the original airplane. Also, we believe that we have a sufficient technical basis to improve the flying qualities for the second full-scale airplane which we plan to fly after our work with the first aircraft is complete.

We believe that the 1903 Wright Flyer and its immediate successors are the products of the first research and development principles/program in the form we know today for such activities. Unlike the traditional trial and error strategy followed previously, e.g. by Edison in much of his work, the Wright brothers made substantial use of analysis and reasoning founded on first principles. They limited their tests to the minimum number, conducting only those that they believed to be essential based on their understanding of the problems at hand. Their wind tunnel tests were primarily concerned with airfoils, with some work on planforms (they discovered the benefit of increasing aspect ratio). However, they did no such testing with complete aircraft configurations and all of their wind tunnel tests were performed at Reynolds numbers well below full-scale values (about 1/20 - 1/50).

As the work of the Wrights founded the science and technology of aeronautics, their accomplishments form one of the grandest chapters in history. What they did, how they did it, and what they actually achieved deserve to be carefully and thoroughly documented for all people to understand, appreciate and respect.

From the beginning of the AIAA project, it has been one of our primary goals to provide the most thorough possible documentation of the technical accomplishments of the Wright Brothers' first powered aircraft, both in their contemporary world and in the light of what we now understand. It is for these reasons that we regard data, taken in full-scale wind tunnel tests of the 1903 Wright Flyer to be justified on historical grounds, commemorating a stunning accomplishment opening the 20th century. The airplane has touched the lives of virtually everyone now living. We sincerely believe that the results obtained with the wind tunnel tests and subsequent documentation will constitute a significant and lasting achievement by the AIAA.

The first wind tunnel tests we conducted included a 1/6 scale model tested to Reynolds numbers of about 0.45 x 10e6, approximately 1/9 full-scale value. The model was constructed of wood, wire, and fabric, being a close 1/6 replica in all respects including wing warping. Although an electrically powered propulsion system was mounted, lack of time prevented obtaining data under power. Our 1/8 scale model, constructed of stainless steel, was tested to nearly full-scale Reynolds numbers. However, the model contained no propulsion system or wing warping. Owing to the structural material, many components were not faithful replicas of the original machine. Hence, for some of the data, in particular, the drag polars and lift curves obtained with the two models, the differences between the results are quite apparent.

Approximately one dozen articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines ranging from publications by the AIAA and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, to the American Airlines Flight Magazine. Professor Culick alone has given more than 30 lectures to a wide variety of groups including high school students, Quiet Birdmen, breakfast clubs, the AIAA and engineering groups at Bell Labs and the IBM Laboratory. Howard Marx, as an AIAA Distinguished Lecturer, talks to AIAA Section meetings all over the country. Jack Cherne and Bill Sparks also have given a number of public presentations. Interest and response by others has been remarkable and a great source of satisfaction to those involved in the project.

It is unusual to the point of being amazing that this airplane has been built with donated labor by a group of nominally a dozen volunteers who individually have long and impressive association with the aircraft industry. It is probably more amazing that this group has endured for twenty years and is committed to many more - certainly a tribute to their fascination for the Wright Flyer, a milestone for humankind that first provided wings for man.

A rough calculation of the total professional experience of the group yielded 600 years. Fortunately, this assemblage of backgrounds and personalities has been sufficiently congenial, that our work periods are also very pleasant social events.

This full scale replica with its wing span of 40 feet 4 inches is probably the most exact replica ever built, as it was built not just for display or even to fly, but to be the source of precise aerodynamic data. Many unique encounters along the way have assisted us in achieving this.

When we started building airplane #1, we learned that the Smithsonian was planning to replace the original Wright Flyer wing fabric, as it was deteriorating over time. The Fuller Textile Company was contacted by the Smithsonian to make arrangements for acquiring some fabric. The company responded by supplying a special order of a near identical muslin of weight and thread density to that used by the Wrights. Further, the muslin is applied as it originally was - on the bias, to accommodate the distortion with wing warping.

Another interesting incident happened when we initially sought a company to make the same chains for the chain drive as used by the Wrights. This gauge of chain is no longer manufactured. However, by chance, we found the Diamond Chain Company, who happened to be the supplier to the Wrights! After learning why we needed these out-of-date chains, the company resurrected from its store room the obsolete dies and reproduced the chains. It is gratifying that contacted vendors generally have become interested in the project and have been very generous in their participation.

In September of 1992, as the Wright Flyer was nearing completion, arrangements were made with NASA Ames Research Center at Moffet Field, Mt. View, California, to visit with the people who ran their wind tunnel for a test justification meeting. (Ames is one of only two wind tunnels left in the United States large enough to accommodate full-scale aircraft. The other is at NASA LaRC, Langley Field, Virginia, which was recently spared demolition by being declared a national landmark). Jack Cherne, Howard Marx, Bill Sparks, Bud Chamberlain and Ed Marin flew up in Don Dawson's private plane. Fred Culick met them there.

NASA Ames Research Center Wind Tunnel inlet.
You can barely see some of our team standing in the center!
Wind Tunnel Inlet

We toured not only the Wind Tunnel Control room, but the wind tunnel itself where just about every airplane has been put through its paces.... That is, except the 1903 Wright Flyer. The size of the tunnel cannot be imagined. The photo (above) shows part of our group standing in front of the huge wind tunnel inlet. At that time, we were waiting to get on their calendar, or if circumstances necessitated, journeying to the only other wind tunnel of sufficient size available in the world today - Moscow! Our members have met with the Russians several times, and they eagerly await possibly participating in the testing.

One of the guidelines for testing our Wright Flyer in the NASA Wind Tunnel required that we prove to NASA that the aircraft would survive the loads imposed by the 35 MPH wind in the tunnel. Proof that our aircraft would not fall apart during the test and then potentially damage the tunnel required a structural analysis, prepared by Carl Friend, followed by a static load test.

The proof required by NASA was an analysis that the aircraft could resist five times the maximum load expected in the tunnel without failure and a test to three times the wind tunnel load without permanent deformation.

To demonstrate this, we constructed a large fixture capable of supporting the aircraft, upside down, so that the load could be applied to the underside of the wing to represent flight loads. The loads were applied by the placement of sand bags in a precalculated arrangement representing the load distribution during flight. The load was applied in four increments by the carefully weighed sandbags (1368 on the wing and 144 on the canard). It took a team of forty people to perform the carefully orchestrated plan of loading the sandbags in the proper order such as not to overload any one area, and to measure deflection as we progressed.

The load test took two attempts because of a premature failure due to use of improper fasteners. However, the second attempt was successful.

For nearly three years, the project waited to get on the NASA calendar. We agonized through NASA budget cuts and reorganizations. Finally, there was a glimmer of hope. Then, in July 1995, we received a letter giving us a firm date to perform the wind tunnel tests. Our mission was a big GO! From January 10 through February 29, 1996, were scheduled for presentations, displays and wind tunnel testing. Then, the Federal budget was not passed in 1995, and the government "shut down". At the same time, we found a problem on the airplane that needed to be repaired. Also, the NASA Wind Tunnel had not been able to finish the two jobs in front of us. It was mutually agreed to reschedule for March 1997.

Once the 1903 Wright Flyer completeed its mission of providing wind tunnel data, it began a new adventure. This beautiful airplane trekked to its new home: a beautiful two-story high glass structure which serves as the lobby - soon to be renamed "The Flight Deck Museum" - of the Western-Pacific Regional Office of the Federal Aviation Administration in Hawthorne, California.
Jack Cherne, Project Chairman, supervising the move from Northrop (our home of 15 years) to a new location in Gardena.
Jack Cherne escorts the Wright Flyer to the truck

The theme of the Flight Deck Museum is "tracing the history of aviation", from the mythological beginnings of Icarus' dream to fly - to the 1903 Wright Flyer which proved it could be done - to the Pan Am China Clipper which opened up the Pacific to aviation - to the future single stage to orbit vehicles now on the drawing board. The 1903 Wright Flyer is our star. Since the Regional Office of the FAA is open to the public, it will be seen by many aviation enthusiasts.

The primary reason the Wright Flyer Project decided to donate their prize airplane to the FAA was "for the kids." The FAA Western-Pacific Region has a very active Aviation Education Program. For example, they have adopted the Los Angeles 75th Street School. The children participate in programs at the FAA Regional Office, receive recognition for special accomplishments, receive after school tutoring by the FAA employees, and perform in special programs and ceremonies.

They also have numerous Aviation Education Resource Centers across the region. Many of the FAA employees speak at various school events and career days. An aviation curriculum specially designed for elementary, junior high and high school levels, is provided to any interested school.

And now.... All local schools will be invited to bring their children on field trips to visit the Flight Deck Museum, and hear and see the history of aviation, and to see close up the first airplane that flew.

And who will educate all these kids as they "touch down" on the Flight Deck? Those people have already eagerly stepped forward to be volunteer docents - they belong to the Wright Flyer Project. Who better to talk of the beginnings, than those who have built the first airplane, and are now building one to fly - literally retracing the steps of the Wright Brothers!

Copyright 1996-2003, AIAA Wright Flyer Project, all rights reserved.

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