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A visitor to the Northrop Grumman Celebration of the Centennial of Flight admires the AIAA Wright Flyer Wind Tunnel Replica. It is important to note that our replica is not merely a display model – it has worked for a living, providing the first full scale wind tunnel data to the aerospace community. The red “tufts” you see on the skin of the left wing (above) were used by engineers during these tests to indicate when the air was flowing smoothly over the wing and when the airfoil had stalled and ceased to increase lift of the wing.  This series of tests has spawned further studies to understand the flight mechanics of the 1903 Wright Flyer – from computer models in Great Britain to in-flight simulations conducted by the USAF Test Pilots School.

On October 28, 2003, the AIAA Wright Flyer came home twice, for on that date it returned home to Southern California after touring the country for most of the year, but also because it returned to the Integrated Systems Division of Northrop Grumman Corporation. Nearly twenty-five years before, the LA Chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) undertook a program to build and test an accurate representation of the 1903 Wright Flyer. The Northrop Corporation (now Northrop Grumman Corp.) has always been a strong supporter of our Project, from donating shop space and material to build and assemble our replica as well as a complete sub-scale metal wind tunnel model which was tested prior to our full scale tests (see “sub scale testing” in our Testing and Engineering section of this site).

In addition to the company support, many of our team over the years have been Northrop employees, including our first project chairman Howard Marx.

We are happy to have displayed our replica at the El Segundo site, but a little emotional that our year trip around the country is coming to a close.


Another view of the replica. The importance of wind tunnel testing a full-scale aircraft can be seen in the details included on this replica – accurate representation of the wire bracing forming parts of the truss structure of the wing box, the tall model of the engine radiator to Orville’s right, the small gas can mounted high above his left hand, and Orville himself, fully dressed and in flying position. While some of these features could have been replicated on a sub-scale model, their aerodynamic effects would have been either exaggerated due to the lower Reynolds number for exposed features such as the wires, or minimized for items buried in the thicker boundary layer about the model, such as Orville. Furthermore, testing at full-scale allowed us to evaluate the aero-elastic behavior of the aircraft rather than correct the rigid aerodynamics of a subscale model for aircraft flexibility – supremely important to a relatively flimsy aircraft such as the 1903 Flyer.


At every venue, we have been blessed by energetic and enthusiastic volunteers willing to play the part of Orville and Wilbur. While our Project members stood ready to answer questions in our uniform jumpsuits and blue Project shirts, our younger visitors flocked instead to either of the Brothers to ask about the first airplane. In fact, this paring between the local volunteers well versed in the history of the Wright Brothers, and Project members on hand with varying levels of technical details on our replica and the wind tunnel tests worked very well, and we are thankful to all who donated their time and knowledge around the country Not only did our visitors want to hear about the 1903 Flyer from Orville and Wilbur, but many wanted a picture with the Brothers. Here, a Northrop Grumman employee and his family pose in front of the Flyer.

While just a candid snapshot, this picture tells a story that all Project members who have toured the country with the airplane have experienced. In the eyes of a child – wonder, curiosity, and a bit of amazement that this contraption before him relates to the 747’s taking off from LAX just a half a mile to the north; and in the eyes of our volunteer – an earnest desire to connect with the child and cultivate that curiosity. Dad may have asked the question, but our volunteer Wilbur is responding to the child, just look at Wilbur’s eyes. The Wright Flyer Centennial Tour is sponsored by the AIAA as an educational outreach program to spark an interest in aviation and aerospace in the next generation of pilots, engineers, and astronauts. Hopefully, those of us in the LA Chapter have lived up to this goal.

Signing an autograph.

Adolfo Ibarra has performed yeoman’s duty at every Centennial Tour event he could attend. The Project owes a special debt to you Adolfo, thanks.

Copyright 2003-2004, AIAA Wright Flyer Project, all rights reserved.

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