On October 9, 2003, I drove down to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and along the way I stopped at the Currituck, North Carolina, airport, where the "Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co." was preparing for a test flight of a replica of Orville and Wilbur's 1903 Flyer.
There it is, right there in the hangar. A genuine replica of the first genuine airplane. Holy cow!
The previous day a practice run had resulted in a bit of damage to the aircraft.
The rudder cables had come into contact with the propellers. Not a good idea at all, and the rudder was damaged. But today the rudder has been repaired and is being re-installed.
A crew from the History Channel videotapes the day's activities. This a a Steadi-Cam.
The Steadi-Cam's viewfinder. This is about as interesting to me as the Wright Flyer.
A pilot checks out the aircraft.
The ghosts of Wilbur and Orville quietly observe.
Making adjustments to a replica of a 100-year-old contraption
The Federal Aviation Administration required the aircraft to have an Airworthiness Certificate, even though this thing is somewhat less than "airworthy." The 1903 Flyer did fly and was controllable, but huge design improvements were yet to be made. This replica won't fly much better than the original did.
Even NASA is interested. This is a "black box" that will record measurements of the flight. It's connected to a little anemometer, some wind direction vanes, and a tiny potentiometer on the elevator (to measure elevator deflection). There may have been other measurement devices that I didn't notice. After the test flights, the crew from the "Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company" should be able to add some accurate flight data to the history of the Flyer. They'll also add to our understanding of the skill it took for the Wright Brothers to fly this thing.
The fellow who installed the NASA instrumentation was from Dryden.
It's still in the hangar, and the hour is getting late. Everybody's working fast.
Preparing for flight. The mechanic oils the drive chains.
The engine on this flight will be a 20-hp Briggs and Stratton. An authentic replica of the Wright Brothers' engine will be installed after the pilots have had some experience in flying the machine.
Rolling out to the launch facility. But now it's really late. The sun is going down.
Rolling along easily on the wheels of a specially-designed platform.
Moving onto the Currituck Airport airstrip
But it won't take off on a runway. It'll take off on a rail like the one the Wright Brothers used. About 60 feet long.
Everybody wants to help with this "first flight."
Setting the aircraft on the launch rail
Who is this guy, anyway?
Cute chicks are attracted to experimental aircraft.
There were problems this evening. The Wright Brothers used bicycle wheel hubs (I wonder how they happened to choose that technology?) as rollers to allow the Wright Flyer to accelerate down its launch rail. This particular hub decided at the last minute to lock up. So here we have world-class engineers and jet pilots busting their knuckles on bicycle parts, trying to install a simple washer. Of course they were successful.
Almost ready to roll.
The pilot moves into position in his aircraft. His name is Klas, but they call him "Santa." His helmet did a nice job of reflecting my camera's flash.
Getting ready to start the engine.
The engine is revving up
Here she comes
I understand it's a very unstable vehicle -- the original apparently flew something like a porpoise leaping up and down. Orville and Wilbur had practiced flying a similar aircraft at Kitty Hawk -- their 1902 Glider that incorporated wing warping -- but they had to be awfully alert, and lucky, not to kill themselves in either aircraft.
She's really moving now, but she never lifted off the ground. This was just a test. Still, you should have heard the excitement in Santa's voice when he was talking to his fellow test pilots after the run. She was still accelerating when he hit the kill switch, he said, and he felt she was ready to leap into the sky. It was a very exciting moment for everybody involved.
Safely back in the hangar.