NARRATOR: A century ago, on the sands of Kitty Hawk, two brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, bicycle mechanics and inventors, built flying machines which would transform our world. Today, as we mark the centennial of the Wrights' great achievement, a team of modern pilots and aircraft builders have become aviation detectives, tracking the Wright brothers' 12 years of experiment, innovation, and genuine risk, which would create the modern airplane.
JAY GRATTAN (Glider Pilot): It feels great. It's flying nice and level. It feels really good.
NARRATOR: Starting with simple kites on a beach, in only a dozen years, the Wright brothers built an aircraft which managed to cross the continent.
RICK YOUNG (Aircraft Builder): You study the photographs and study the photographs and, at some point, you'll make a breakthrough and that breakthrough is, "Aahhhh, this is how they were thinking about this. This is what they thought." Those are wonderful moments.
NARRATOR: With modern computer technology and 100-year-old artifacts, the Wrights' secrets are pried from history. Lost skills will need to be relearned in order to solve the mysteries of early aviation.
KEN HYDE (The Wright Experience): The engine is authentic in every way.
GREG CONE (The Wright Experience): It's the only functioning Wright artifact that survives. It's actually, I would say, a national treasure.
KEN HYDE: Fuel coming on. Mag ground's coming off.
NARRATOR: More than just inventors, the Wright brothers were also among the world's first test pilots. If today's builders are going to understand the Wrights' aircraft, they'll have to take a risk and fly them.
JAY GRATTAN: Two men came to try something that half the world believed wasn't even possible. They took great risks, and they were entering an area of the unknown.
Don't hug me like I'm going to die. You're scaring me.
KEN HYDE: Accidents were the norm, because they were pushing the envelope. All the exhibition teams but one or two were killed, uh, in giving demonstrations with Wright airplanes.
NARRATOR: History shows that piloting Wright Flyers could be hazardous to your health. Modern flight simulators can limit but not eliminate the risks.
KEN HYDE: I've dreamt a lot about being in this airplane and actually flying it, so, hopefully, we can make that dream, uh, come true.
NARRATOR: But as the dreams of the early flyers take shape, questions remain unanswered, and in any airplane, a dream can quickly become a nightmare.
GREG CONE: We could hear the airplane running, and then we couldn't hear it.
911 OPERATOR: Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?
CALLER: We heard a crack and a backfire, and then you could hear it going down.
NARRATOR: Fasten your seatbelts, as NOVA takes a wild ride through aviation's first turbulent decade, unlocking the secrets of the Wright brothers.
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NARRATOR: On the tarmac at Washington's Dulles Airport, a modern airline pilot performs one of aviation's oldest rituals, a walk-around inspection of his aircraft. Checking for loose fittings or simple nicks and dents, a pilot is ultimately responsible for every aspect of his flight.
Ken Hyde is more than a pilot. He is also a historian of aviation. Long before airplanes had radios and computers, the pilot was the master of his craft, an idea born in the minds of Wilbur and Orville Wright. How the Wright brothers managed to design, construct, and pilot their aircraft has remained a marvel for over a century. It is Ken Hyde's dream to build and fly the earliest airplanes, to recreate the genius of the Wright brothers.
KEN HYDE: We're committed to show the future generations just how much of a risk that Orville and Wilbur Wright were taking. Uh, it was not easy.
NARRATOR: It's still not easy today. On the beach at Kitty Hawk, another Wright enthusiast, Rick Young, experiments with the first Wright brothers' aircraft, wind-powered gliders.
RICK YOUNG: The work of the Wright brothers, what they accomplished in their lifetime, is a, a really unparalleled technical achievement. When I became aware that there were parts of the story that were missing and that we didn't know, the opportunity to rediscover those things for ourselves was just irresistible.
NARRATOR: Without the original diagrams Rick and Ken have to rely on the Wrights' century-old photographs.
RICK YOUNG: Ken, this is the only picture we have of the 1902 glider that shows the, uh, double moveable tail.
KEN HYDE: You think it would have...
NARRATOR: The written records are very incomplete. Orville and Wilbur were secretive by nature and always worried about people stealing their designs. Today, their secrets will have to be rediscovered.
The Wrights were part of a tight-knit, mid-western family, eventually settling in Dayton, Ohio. Around 1878, Orville and Wilbur's father gave the boys their first flying machine. It was a children's toy, a rubber band model of an aircraft before there were aircraft. The brothers flew it, destroyed it and rebuilt it. They planned to fly a full-scale version, but Orville's grade school teacher wisely called a halt before any damage was done.
In 1893, after years of working at various minor businesses, the brothers opened a small bicycle company.
TOM CROUCH (National Air and Space Museum): Wilbur Wright is approaching thirty. He's sort of taken it easy in life, and I think he has the sense that if he's ever going to make his mark in the world, he's, this is the, the time to do it. And, so, he's, he's looking for the challenge that will, will do that for him. And, one of the great challenges, at the end of the 19th Century, is the airplane.
NARRATOR: Working from their bicycle shop, Orville and Wilbur Wright began a modest, but serious research project on manned flight. Starting with a few dollars and a Dayton Public Library card, they transformed their workshop into a laboratory of aeronautics. Wilbur wrote a letter to the U.S. Weather Bureau searching for a list of very windy locations. The bureau suggested the lonely Outer Banks of North Carolina, an isolated lifesaving station called Kitty Hawk. It was here that they constructed a Spartan base camp on the dunes and began the experiments which would make them famous.
At a modern workshop near Kitty Hawk, Rick and Ken's team is laboring to reproduce the Wrights' early experiments. Using the same wood and fabric, the same wire and fittings, they've started with the most basic of the Wrights' designs, man-carrying gliders.
KEN HYDE: I feel a lot of humility just working with the parts and pieces that we've been able to find. It's absolutely amazing that they could do what they accomplished in such a short period of time.
Now, if you take this off...okay, just kick it one time. See, that thing can get way over to one side.
RICK YOUNG: ...in a, in a gust and all.
KEN HYDE: Yes.
NARRATOR: Unlike other dreamers and experimenters, before the Wrights even began their project, they broke the problem of flight into three distinct parts.
TOM CROUCH: If you think about an airplane, it really requires three separate systems, at least, to function. You have to have wings that will lift you into the air; you have to have a propulsion system that will move the wings through the air to generate lift; and you have to have a control system, a means of balancing the airplane when, when it's in the air.
NARRATOR: The Wrights used their earliest gliders to work on the problem of lift—how to get wood and fabric to seemingly defy gravity and rise into the air.
TOM CROUCH: That's just what their pictures look like. It is!
RICK YOUNG: Yeah?
MAN WITH FISHERMAN'S SCALE: Fifteen's an average right now.
RICK YOUNG: Okay, that's good right there.
MAN WITH FISHERMAN'S SCALE: Ten, fifteen.
NARRATOR: Using an ordinary fisherman's scale, the Wrights were able to measure the amount of lift their wings were producing.
SECOND MAN WITH FISHERMAN'S SCALE: Fifteen, twenty-two.
NARRATOR: Creating lift was the most basic problem faced by the new field of aeronautical engineering.
JOHN ANDERSON (National Air and Space Museum): Aeronautical engineering, at the time of the Wrights, was simply a phrase that you could find in several books. Since it was dealing with a machine that is moving in three-dimensional space, one of those dimensions, of course, is up. And you try to sustain the airplane in the air by creation of lift.
NARRATOR: Any child who ever stuck a hand from a moving train would have realized that a strong wind pushing against her palm can produce lift. With a rounded top surface, the air passing over a wing travels farther and faster than the air underneath, becoming slightly less dense; the wing rises to fill this partial vacuum. This concept, known as Bernoulli's theorem, had been understood for 160 years, but Wilbur Wright quickly discovered there was little agreement on what the proper shape of a wing should be.
TOM CROUCH: What he discovered was that people had made wings that would lift: Otto Lilienthal had built gliders that carried him on over 2,000 flights through the air; Samuel Langley had built wings that carried his really rather heavy models through the air. So, uh, Wilbur Wright assumed that he could rely on those folks for his initial information on wings.
NARRATOR: In the 1890s, German experimenter Otto Lilienthal built a series of complex hang gliders. Ridiculed by cynics as a flying squirrel, Lilienthal based many of his designs on the curvature of birds' wings and tested them by jumping off a hill he constructed near Berlin.
TOM CROUCH: They assumed that since Lilienthal had flown rather well in his hang gliders, that, uh, the data on which he had based those gliders must be correct. And that was the basis for their, the design of their first two gliders in 1900 and 1901.
NARRATOR: Lilienthal died in the crash of one of his gliders, but his published research was believed to be accurate. The Wrights built their first wings with the same cross-sections Lilienthal had used.
CREW MEMBER: It's caught right there. How about the top part? Hey, oh, wait a second. That looks like a part of the problem. There's the problem, the top part, abandon the main.
NARRATOR: During a season of mysterious failures, the Wrights searched for a cause. Their wings were not producing anywhere near the amount of lift Lilienthal's tables had predicted. Wilbur began to suspect that the German's data was flawed.
JOHN ANDERSON: Their lift was one-third of what they had been calculating on the basis of Otto Lilienthal's table. And they were so discouraged that they felt that the tables were definitely in error, and they made a very intellectually courageous decision to not use that data and to do everything on their own.
VOICE: We have a shelter from the wind here. Now this is the part...
NARRATOR: The Wrights knew that the wings that they had constructed were inefficient, but if they had to build a complete glider to study every slight change in wing shape, their part-time project could stretch on for decades.
TOM CROUCH: They could have built a great number of gliders with separate sorts of wing shapes and airfoils and that kind of thing, but, rather than doing that, they took a much smarter approach: they built a wind tunnel. The wind tunnel itself is actually a fairly simple device. Rather than moving a wing forward through the air, flying the way you do with a glider, in a wind tunnel, you position it in one spot, down here, and you run air over the top of it.
The tunnel itself, the device, is something anyone could have done. The balances, on the other hand, really illustrate the Wright brothers' genius.
NARRATOR: Constructed from a few ounces of scrap metal, the Wright balance is one of the most important experimental devices in the history of technology. The simple apparatus let the Wrights quickly compare how much lift was produced by tiny metal wings mounted vertically on a wire frame. Experiments which would take weeks with a full-scale glider, could be completed in hours on the Wright balance.
TOM CROUCH: It's made out of hacksaw blades, bicycle spoke wire, simple pieces of material that they had around the bicycle shop. And yet, it's every bit as important to the story of the Wright brothers as the gliders that they flew at Kitty Hawk.
NARRATOR: With their balance, the Wrights tested hundreds of airfoil shapes, moving the thickest part of the wing forward from the middle up to the leading edge, changing the width of the wing and altering the angle it would bite the wind.
TOM CROUCH: The Wright brothers were able to gather pieces of aerodynamic data so accurate that modern engineers, working with multimillion dollar wind tunnel facilities, are only able to improve on it by a percentage point or two.
RICK YOUNG: Uh, keep that leading edge up.
NARRATOR: Pilot Jay Grattan tests the improved wings designed in the Wright wind tunnel.
RICK YOUNG: The right wing...that's it, that's it, that's great. That's it, there we go. More angle.
NARRATOR: Flying on a tether, in a good wind, a new glider generates just enough lift to overcome Jay's weight.
RICK YOUNG: That's it, that's it, that's it, good reaction.
JAY GRATTAN: It would be nerve wracking, because I'm not sure about the capabilities of this machine, if they weren't holding on to it, but, you know, not yet, uh, not nerve wrecking yet, exciting.
It's gusting a little bit.
KEN HYDE: That's beautiful.
NARRATOR: By 1902, the Wright brothers had solved the problem of lift; they had designed a wing which could fly.
RICK YOUNG: You're flying it, baby.
NARRATOR: The adventures on the dunes stimulated the Wrights' creativity, but there was more to flying than just lift.
TOM CROUCH: The great problem, really, that, uh, flying machine experimenters in the late 19th and early 20th century faced was the issue of control, and it was the Wright brothers' recognition of the fact that the control issue was going to be critical that initially set them apart from virtually everyone else.
NARRATOR: While most engineers assumed that a successful aircraft would need to be inherently stable, as bicycle builders, the Wrights made their living building vehicles which were inherently unstable. They knew that a bicycle was stable only if the rider kept it under control.
TOM CROUCH: Most other experimenters in the field assumed that the control issue was going to be so difficult that the best approach they could take was to build an airplane that had maximum sort of automatic stability, an airplane that would fly in a straight line until the pilot made some sort of control input to change its direction, and then it would continue going in a straight, straight line again.
NARRATOR: Early designers imagined aircraft as a kind of flying boat. If wind or waves rock a boat, it should be able to right itself. Instead of a boat, the Wrights thought of their flying machine more like a bicycle and rider: if the bike rolled to the left or right it was the job of the rider to keep it upright. The Wrights didn't worry about building automatic stability into their airplanes anymore than they designed their bicycles to go without riders.
TOM CROUCH: As cyclists, the Wright brothers said to themselves, "Well, if you tried to describe the act of riding a bicycle to someone who'd never seen one, um, what? You're going to roll down the street in this thing with two narrow rubber tires, and you're going to be balancing while you're operating the handle bars."
It would sound like the sort of feat that only the world's greatest acrobat could accomplish, and yet, they knew that once you learn how to ride a bike, you internalize that, and it becomes perfectly natural and instinctive; you don't even think about it. And they were sure that the same thing would be true of a flying machine.
NARRATOR: Simple handle bars and body English could control a bicycle, but how could a pilot control a flying machine?
TOM CROUCH: The story Wilbur told is that he was in the bicycle shop one day and a customer came in and asked for an inner tube which came in a rectangular box. Wilbur was just idly toying with the box and suddenly realized that if you could put a helical twist all the way across the two wings of a biplane, so that on one side that the, uh, tip would be pointed up and on the other side down, and again, you could put a twist across it like this, that would be a method of controlling the airplane in the roll axis. And it's the system that ultimately came to be called wing warping.
RICK YOUNG: Are the cables running pretty cleanly through the pulleys?
NARRATOR: In the gliders, the wing-warping was controlled by swiveling the pilot's hips. Cables transmitted the pilot's movements, twisting one wing up and the other down.
RICK YOUNG: Yep, that's good. How about into the wind? Are we all right as well?
NARRATOR: From the Wrights' first gliders through modern jets, aircraft are steered by banking left and right. Individually changing the shape of wings, either by warping or with modern ailerons, has become the basis of all controlled flight.
RICK YOUNG: Their idea of having an active control system coupled to human intelligence, so that, the human being was every bit a part of the machine and, so, in essence, it's the man that..., the airplane becomes, the manifestation of your mind.
JAY GRATTAN: Don't hug me like I'm going to die.
GRANDMOTHER: I'm not going to.
JAY GRATTAN: You're scaring me.
KEN HYDE: Jay, uh...
NARRATOR: After several flights on a tether, Jay Grattan is ready to try her first free flight in the reconstructed 1902 glider.
JAY GRATTAN: Okay.
RICK YOUNG: Here comes the wind. Wouldn't you know it?
WOMAN: Seventeen point eight, twenty, twenty, twenty-eight...
RICK YOUNG: Are we ready?
KEN HYDE: Yeah, let's go.
RICK YOUNG: Okay.
NARRATOR: The Wrights' 1902 glider had wings which could both lift and steer the craft. But controlling the plane by swiveling the hips isn't easy, and it can only be practiced in the air.
RICK YOUNG: Very, very, very good.
NARRATOR: With a good breeze, the Wrights' glider could stay aloft for over 600 feet.
RICK YOUNG: Oh, man, this is it.
NARRATOR: With their wings producing lift and their warping system allowing some control, the brothers had solved two of the three problems in building an airplane.
JAY GRATTAN: Beautiful! Oh, this is awesome!
NARRATOR: Now the Wrights needed a way to sustain flight. A small gasoline engine could provide the horsepower, but it would take a propeller to actually move the plane through the air.
At the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, Ken and Rick have borrowed a rare, original Wright brothers' propeller to learn its secrets. If the team is to build a Wright airplane, they need to be able to carve their own propellers. They want to measure the antique blades' precise cross sections without damaging them.
KEN HYDE: They're in remarkable condition.
RICK YOUNG: Man.
NARRATOR: This apparatus, used in the auto industry, is designed to measure a three-dimensional object and to record its shape on a computer.
KEN HYDE: Great.
RICK YOUNG: Okay, that tells us what we need to know.
KEN HYDE: Looks good, yeah, just keep doing it all the way across, that'll be great.
RICK YOUNG: Um hum.
TOM CROUCH: The propeller was one of the great technical problems that the Wrights faced and solved. And, in fact, when you look at the way in which they did it, it really does sort of underscore the, the nature of their genius.
People had been studying windmill blades since the 18th century, and people had been using propellers on ships throughout the 19th century, really, so the Wrights assumed that there was some sort of a theoretical base there that enables you to calculate propeller performance. When they went to look, they discovered that that theoretical base simply wasn't there, and they were going to have to do that themselves. The great breakthrough occurred when they stopped to think about the problem and said, essentially, "Well, it's much like a wing: it's developing lift rather than moving forward through the air. It's rotating, and the lift becomes the thrust that moves the airplane forward."
NARRATOR: A Wright propeller was just a wing spinning in a circle. The computer reveals the propeller's cross-sections are the same curves as a Wright wing. With this connection between propellers and wings, the Wrights had solved the fundamental riddle of propeller design. Now, the brothers managed to leapfrog all other theoretical work on aircraft propulsion.
JOHN ANDERSON: In the fall of 1903, the Wright brothers are at Kill Devil Hills, Wright Flyer, they're testing the engine, they're testing the propellers, cranking this thing up. They're literally measuring the thrust put out by the engine/propeller combination.
They had calculated that they needed 90 pounds of thrust. When they measured the thrust, it was a spectacular 130 pounds. Why? Because their propellers were so much more efficient than even they themselves felt and Wilbur wrote home that night to his family saying, "Success assured," because of their propellers.
NARRATOR: But the Wright brothers kept their progress under wraps, concerned about high-profile competition. In Washington, Dr. Samuel Langley, with $50,000 in government backing, was putting the finishing touches on his massive flying machine, the aerodrome.
TOM CROUCH: Samuel Langley, the third Secretary of the Smithsonian, had conducted his experiments with model airplanes. So, when he went to build a full-scale aerodrome, as he called it, it was actually sort of the world's largest model airplane. It was a thing that was inherently stable—it had some control, but he was actually going to come back and worry about control later.
NARRATOR: The first week of December, 1903, Dr. Langley's pilot, Charles Manley, attempted to launch his plane from a barge on the Potomac. The huge Aerodrome was catapulted down the rail and then, seconds later, broke apart and plunged into the icy river. Manley was saved from drowning, but, as the aircraft sank, so did the public's belief that powered flight would be possible.
One week after Langley's wreck, working alone in the obscurity of Kitty Hawk, Orville and Wilbur Wright placed a wooden rail on the dunes and attempted their own powered flight.
TOM CROUCH: So when they got up that morning, they had to warm themselves up and cook a little breakfast. Orville set the camera up and pointed it at a spot beyond the end of the rail, where he thought the airplane might be if it actually left the rail. And he put a Coast Guardsman named John Daniels in charge of the camera and told him just to squeeze the bulb if he saw the airplane leave the track.
The brothers kind of pulled off by themselves for a minute, and, uh, just talked quietly. Orville climbs onto the airplane, and when everything's ready to go—he has Wilbur on the right wingtip to kind of keep it balanced...and Orville flipped the clip open, and down they went into the air.
The first flight was 120 feet in 12 seconds. Each flight was a little longer than the one before it, but it really wasn't until the fourth flight—uh, Wilbur's flight—that they really flew far enough to prove to themselves that they had achieved sustained flight. They flew down the beach in 59 seconds, and it was real impressive.
There aren't many days that you can actually identify when history changes, but December 17th, 1903, was one of those days, because it was the day on which an airplane flew for the very first time.
NARRATOR: After dinner, Orville hiked down to the telegraph office and sent a brief message to his father announcing the birth of aviation and assuring him they would be home for Christmas. Back home in Dayton, the following spring, the Wright brothers set out to perfect their invention. A small meadow on the edge of town became the world's first airport.
TOM CROUCH: In 1904 and 1905, Huffman Prairie, this little cow pasture, in the middle of Ohio farm country, was really the only place in the entire world where you could see an airplane fly.
NARRATOR: Cautiously, a few members of the national press ventured out to the prairie.
TOM CROUCH: One of the first reporters who came to Dayton to investigate the story of the Wright brothers went around to interview the various families who had seen the Wrights actually operating their machine in the air over Huffman Prairie. And one of them had a small boy, and the reporter asked the boy if he had seen the airplane fly and what it had been like, to which the kid responded by putting his arms out and running around the room going like this, making airplane noises. And it struck me, when I first ran across that account, that that must have been the first time in the history of the world when a child had, had demonstrated the flight of an airplane in that way.
NARRATOR: The Wright brothers had managed to turn their own childhood fascination with flight into a reality. Within a year of their first short hops at Kitty Hawk, the Wrights had built airplanes capable of thirty minute flights. With success, their lives began to change. Wilbur made his first trip to Europe where he demonstrated his astounding machine before presidents and kings. The brothers were becoming the first new celebrities of the 20th century.
This sudden change from mid-western bicycle mechanic to international luminary is revealed to Ken Hyde in the brothers' own banking records.
KEN HYDE: The Wright brothers were very cautious on how they spent money, and they kept very, very good records. In the early 1900s, the figures are very small, 25 cents to repair an inner tube, a lot of, uh, nickel and ten cent items. As we get further in the building of the airplane, we start seeing much larger expenditures for tools and equipment. And then, later on, up into 1907, we're seeing $400 checks to patent attorneys for the patent laws in Belgium and France and England. So, it's become, from just a small bicycle shop in Dayton, an international operation.
NARRATOR: The Wright Aircraft Company moved to a modern factory. After four years of improvements, the Wrights began building their most advanced plane—the world's first mass produced aircraft—the Wright Model B Flyer. Selling for the price of a fine yacht, the Model B was meant to be a very practical machine. Its powerful engine and 40-foot wingspan could carry pilot and passenger over 50 miles in the relative comfort of padded seats. As a Model B lands on the White House lawn, flight becomes the American dream.
Of the dozens of Model Bs built by the Wright Company, today only one remains. It hangs, unflyable, at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute. The B had over a thousand parts and no original drawings have survived.
As a first step in building their own Model B, Ken and Rick's team has come to measure the original craft's components. Ninety years have taken their toll on the fabric covering, but the wire rigging remains intact.
At Ken Hyde's airfield in Virginia, the next step is to exactly reproduce the Model B parts. Unlike the Wrights' small gliders, their larger, powered planes needed wooden frames with spars strong enough to support two people, an engine and a radiator weighing hundreds of pounds.
Each of the plane's 70 ribs has to be individually assembled from hand-sawed spruce. Workers have to master the complex construction techniques which keep the weight of the rib to a minimum, while giving it the strength of a much heavier piece. If any part of the aircraft's center section fails, the entire structure could collapse.
KEN HYDE: The Wright brothers knew that this wing had to be strong enough to hold their support and carry the air loads that they needed, and it also had to be flexible to be able to withstand and do the wing warping that they needed to do for control.
NARRATOR: Ken's team has obtained fabric woven from thread identical in strength and weight to the Wright's original. A century ago, the Wright factory relied on the sewing skills of local garment workers. Using a modern sewing machine an individual fabric pocket is sewn for each rib.
KEN HYDE: This tin strip is attached, nailed at the top and nailed at the bottom. That's the only attachment of the rib to the spar. And this whole fabric now can slide back and forth as the wing flexes, and that's the secret, I think.
NARRATOR: The stretched fabric acts like the aluminum skin of a modern airplane, providing the airfoil shape which creates the lift.
KEN HYDE: Now you have a very tight airfoil and all of the components can now twist and warp.
NARRATOR: In the Wrights' later planes the wing warping is controlled by strong wooden handles instead of the pilot's hips.
KEN HYDE: Without the fabric, this wing only weighs 17 pounds, which is just absolutely amazing. If you ask an engineer today to build you a wing 13 feet long, six-foot-two chord, he's going to be scratching his head to come in at 17 pounds.
NARRATOR: The Model B was held together by the tension of 114 steel wires anchored to the wooden frame in complex, triangular designs—the Wrights favored bicycle spoke wires. Each connection needs to be torqued and lashed with safety lines.
The original B's eight-foot propellers were the work of skilled cabinet makers using carefully laminated pine. Today, Ken relies on the talents of a local violin maker, who shapes the precise contours of the original blades.
But, then, as now, the most complex part of any airplane is its motor. Ken Hyde searched the world for an original 90-year-old Wright engine which he and Greg Cone could restore.
GREG CONE: This particular engine, Ken found in a living room in California. It had been a family heirloom. It was originally given by Orville Wright to Al Johnson, of Johnson's Flying Service in Dayton, Ohio.
NARRATOR: The Wrights cast their engines from lightweight aluminum, a remarkable innovation at a time when most automobile engines were made of heavy iron.
GREG CONE: The Wright brothers, as engine builders, were very ingenious. They knew that they had to cheat mean old Mr. Gravity every chance they got. Being bicycle manufacturers, they knew how to work sheet steel and tubing, and they would wind up with a component that weighed grams. So they were doing everything they could to save weight.
NARRATOR: With computer-driven tools, Greg is able to grind dozens of engine parts back to their original Wright factory specifications. Some pilots' log books from 1912 suggest that the Model B's engines might have a nasty tendency to throw connecting rods through the crankcase wall.
GREG CONE: Any engine is not happy if it would throw a connecting rod, especially this engine, because the pilot and the passenger sit right beside this thing, and if a rod should come out, there's very little in between the connecting rod and the guy sitting beside it. And they did have a few failures, and we are doing the best we can to make sure that we don't.
KEN HYDE: You've sure done a good job.
NARRATOR: After years of restoration, Ken and Greg prepare to fire up the first Wright brothers' engine to run in over 70 years.
KEN HYDE: Are we all set?
GREG CONE: All set. We're going to oil it.
KEN HYDE: Now all it needs to do is run.
GREG CONE: I'll guess we'll prime it and go. Okay, we'll get the corks. Okay, I'd say, pull the terminal leads off.
KEN HYDE: Ground's coming off. Mag is hot.
GREG CONE: All right. Now hit the compression release.
KEN HYDE: Okay, compression release coming off.
GREG CONE: Got compression. All right, Ken, fuel on, please.
KEN HYDE: Okay, it's hot.
GREG CONE: Release the compression. Let me pull it through a few more times.
KEN HYDE: Go ahead, keep propping now, fuel is off.
GREG CONE: All right.
NARRATOR: Now Ken and Greg can hear, for the first time, how a Wright engine really sounds.
After a series of tests, it's time to mount the engine on the frame of the almost-completed aircraft. It has been almost a decade since the project began. With hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the construction, Ken's pursuit of the Model B has become both a business and a passion.
KEN HYDE: Well, that's the first time we've seen it in the airplane. It's like it's supposed to be there.
GREG CONE: Yeah.
NARRATOR: On a rainy spring morning, Greg Cone puts the finishing touches on the reconstructed Model B. As in the Wrights' original version, the wooden parts have been coated with a powdered aluminum varnish to protect them from the weather. The pilot's controls are carefully rigged to the actual Wright factory standards. Except for the addition of an FAA-required seatbelt, the original plane has been reborn.
The Wrights hoped that their aircraft would one day be as common as the motor car. But, for now, planes were mainly curiosities.
TOM CROUCH: They couldn't carry enough weight to carry freight or to carry passengers on scheduled routes or anything of that sort. So, the Wright brothers discovered, in the end, that they had almost no choice but to operate an exhibition team—charge admission, people would come in to watch pilots fly Wright airplanes and race and do stunts—and make money that way.
NARRATOR: Although Wilbur cautioned his pilots to fly straight and level, it was the daredevil stunts which brought the crowds.
KEN HYDE: There was a lot of competition, and everybody was trying to be flamboyant, and everybody was trying to break records, and everybody was trying to get their name in the paper. So they were diving these airplanes at, at high speed, and they were doing the spiral of death, and they were doing high altitude contests, and, as a result, all the exhibition teams but one or two were killed in giving demonstrations with Wright airplanes.
NARRATOR: In a single flying season, with crackups in St. Louis and New York, and with fatal crashes at Denver and Los Angeles, the Wright team lost some of its best pilots. The flash and danger of the air show circuit didn't sit easily with the Wrights. Orville himself had crashed two years earlier, resulting in a passenger's death. The Wrights were determined to learn from these tragedies. They collected data on all the accidents involving their craft.
KEN HYDE: I have a flight manual that we developed—it's from their tests, a lot of newspaper articles about what happened in crashes—and the biggest problem people had was getting a wingtip down and not remembering which way to move the control. The controls are entirely different than anything that we fly today.
In the Curtiss Jenny or in the 727, if you want to turn to the left, you turn the wheel to the left, if you want to turn to the right, you hold to the right. In the Wright B Flyer, in order to turn to the right, you're going to pull back on a stick, it's going to be a fore and aft movement. So, you're going to have to think about it; it's not going to be instinctive.
NARRATOR: To learn the instincts of a Wright pilot, Ken practices on a computer-driven flight simulator, based on performance records of a Model B. With authentic controls and engine sounds, he hopes he can master his reconstructed flying machine without leaving the ground.
KEN HYDE: The airplane stalls at, uh, 24 miles an hour. And if you get it in too steep a bank, what happens is it starts to slide sideways, because it does not have the vertical fin area that a normal airplane has. Wilbur and Orville both wrote that you, you cannot get yourself in a position where you have to think where the control is, it has to be instinctively, uh, a movement of your, of your hand, because if you get in this kind of an emergency situation, you don't have time to think about that. You just, just have to react normally.
NARRATOR: The next step is to determine how the new Model B performs.
KEN HYDE: Uh, there has not been an, uh, uh, original Wright Model B flown since 1934, and this airplane is 100 percent authentic, with an original engine.
NARRATOR: The new Wright Flyer is brought out to the runway for a static engine test.
KEN HYDE: Our basic test procedure was the same as the Wright brothers'. They would stake the airplane down, tie a grocery scale in the back of the hangar, and they would run the engine up to full power and measure how many pounds of thrust that the airplane was actually putting out.
On three or one, two, three, four? On Three. One, two, three.
We were getting between 160 to 165 pounds of thrust, so we knew that our propellers were performing well. And we were also convinced that our engine was operating at peak performance.
NARRATOR: The plane is now ready for its first taxi tests, but for days the weather shuts down all operations at the airstrip. After a week's delay the weather suddenly clears, and the frustrated team seizes the opportunity to test the plane. It's not yet ready to fly, but this will be one of the first times the craft moves under its own power, a chance to see how it steers on the ground.
CREW MEMBER: Try it one more time. On three. One, two...
NARRATOR: The rain has taken its toll on the grass strip, and Ken decides to move the plane halfway down the runway to avoid some rough spots. The Model B has no brakes, and if something goes wrong, Ken will have much less room to stop.
Behind Ken, the propellers rev up to full power. As the plane picks up speed, something seems to be going wrong.
KEN HYDE: The airplane accelerated faster than we had experienced before, because it's the first time we've really got full power on the airplane. The rudder went from being very, very poor, as far as operational control, to extremely sensitive at a full RPM.
NARRATOR: Ken is having trouble keeping the plane under control. With the end of the runway coming up fast, he has to make a quick decision: to intentionally steer the plane into a ditch or take a chance that he can get it airborne and over the trees.
The plane lifts off the end of the runway, an unplanned first flight. Greg Cone could only look on in disbelief.
GREG CONE: We stood here and watched as, uh, he continued past the end of the runway, and then he cleared the trees.
KEN HYDE: I headed for a gap in the trees, about the end of the runway, we made a slight right-hand turn, went out through that gap without any problem whatsoever, and it climbed out well. And I was tickled pink. I thought, "This is, uh, this is going to be okay."
Very gently, I rolled into a left-hand turn, and the airplane immediately went into a left skid. Each time you go into a skid like that, it's costing you airspeed, and it's costing you altitude. The trees were coming up pretty fast, and I decided, "Well, if we're going to go into the trees, it's much better to go in on the wingtip, because I'm sitting strictly out here on the front end of the spar."
GREG CONE: We could hear the airplane running, and then we couldn't hear it. And then we heard it again, and then we didn't hear it anymore, and we knew we had to go look for him.
911 EMERGENCY CALL: Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?
CALLER: ...a little lawnmower engine airplane. We heard it, a crack and backfire, and then you could hear it going down.
NARRATOR: What had started a few minutes earlier as a simple taxi test had gone terribly wrong, but it could have been much worse.
KEN HYDE: The airplane absorbed a lot of shock, so my body didn't take a whole lot of shock. I had a pretty bad bump on my head, and I was, I was bleeding, and I was pretty sure my right arm was broken. I'm up a tree about 30, 35 feet. I'm not happy, uh, because my airplane is bent and, uh, I'm a little bent.
NARRATOR: It took the emergency team almost an hour to lower Ken out of the tree.
KEN HYDE: They strapped me on a board and we went charging through the woods, uh, to get to a helicopter, and I thought, "You know, I've had a bad day with airplanes today, you know? This helicopter, I don't know this pilot, I'm, we're in the middle of the woods, and, uh, the, there are no lights out here." I thought, "Oh, jeez, you know, I don't know whether I want to go for another airplane ride today."
NARRATOR: Ken was medevaced to a regional trauma center.
KEN HYDE: Everybody was saying, "You were in a what, uh, in what kind of airplane?" And, uh, "You were in a tree?" And it, it, I mean, it was like, "We haven't had one of these before." A good friend of mine said, "I will bet you no one in any emergency room for a hundred years has ever heard the story that you told them about what you had gone through with the Wright airplane."
NARRATOR: With Ken in the hospital, Greg and the team attempted to recover the remains of the Model B. Suddenly years of effort were hanging precariously suspended by a couple of threads.
GREG CONE: The airplane was held up by two of the brace wires, just amazing, just amazing that thing didn't come down.
NARRATOR: So how did the plane end up in the trees? What exactly did go wrong on the short flight?
KEN HYDE: It went first into a left-hand skid and then into a right-hand skid, and it was like, "bam!" I got this, you know...so, it, it, it's going to be, you know...we're getting, we're getting used to this.
So, I flew a little bit further and then decided, well, we're going to head back towards the field, and so I rolled into a left-hand turn again, and the same thing happened. It went into that left-hand skid, and nothing I could do would get it to come out of it.
NARRATOR: The reason for the skids is still a mystery, but, like every aviation mishap, the crash of the B was the result of a series of preventable problems.
KEN HYDE: An aircraft accident is always a chain of small things that accumulate; this is not any different. We had not planned to go flying. Um, we had planned to do a taxi test. The safety equipment is sitting on the workbench in the hangar, which is foolish. We had to taxi down about 600 feet of the runway because of some ditching area there, so that cut down on some runway space, and then, of course, the airplane came off the ground, from our calculations, uh, less than half the distance. So, when you add all those things up, you know, um, hindsight says you could see it coming, you know? But, um, uh, at the time, we didn't see it coming.
GREG CONE: As anxious as we are to see this thing fly, um, we still haven't seen it fly—we saw it fly away. I've been associated with this airplane for 10 years, so I'm attached to it. Wooden components took it hard. Of course we have spares. Most of the metal work came through pretty good, the fittings...just very disappointing.
NARRATOR: The world's only functional Wright engine survived the crash with only minor damage.
GREG CONE: But it came through relatively unscathed. You can imagine it's kind of precious, kind of precious.
NARRATOR: But if it is ever going to fly again, the Model B will have to be completely rebuilt. Money will have to be raised, engineers consulted. This time, Ken's team will need to be more attentive to the dangers.
KEN HYDE: The whole process of building authentic airplanes definitely brings authentic risks, the same as the Wright brothers'. They did have accidents. A large number of people operating early Wright airplanes ended up dead or ended up, uh, tearing up the airplane. And, and I think, I think that's part of the equation that we really haven't thought out that well.
NARRATOR: Before Kitty Hawk, Wilbur wrote that he hoped to avoid accidents long enough to learn to prevent accidents. But Wilbur and Orville Wright were both builders and pilots. Starting with their first gliders, they believed that, in spite of the risks, actually flying their inventions was an inseparable part of the process of discovery.
KEN HYDE: Just like Wilbur said, you know, you can sit on the fence and watch the horse, but you're not going to learn how to ride it until you finally bite the bullet and get on it and fly it.
NARRATOR: Back at Ken Hyde's hangar, the planning resumes to build and fly the perfect Model B. A century after Kitty Hawk, work goes on to unlock the secrets of the Wright brothers.
What was it like to be one of the first people ever to see an airplane fly? On NOVA's Website, read one man's riveting eye-witness account from 1905. Find it on PBS.org.
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Wright Brothers' Flying Machine
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Wright Brothers Flyer reproduction built and flown by Ken Hyde of Warrenton, Virginia
Wright Brothers Kite and Glider reproductions built and flown by Rick and Sue Young and Jacquelyn Young Grattan and R.D. David Young of Richmond, Virginia
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A NOVA Production by Green Umbrella, LLC for WGBH/Boston in association with Boston Science Communications, Inc. and Sveriges Television.
© 2003 WGBH Educational Foundation
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