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March 12, 2003
New Wright flier takes wing

By Joe Bauman
Deseret News staff writer

Pilot Wayne Larsen test flies the Wright flier at Wendover airport. The plane, built by USU faculty members and students, reached an altitude of 75 feet on one flight.
Michael Brandy, Deseret News

WENDOVER — Marking the centennial year anniversary of powered flight, a modern version of the Wright brothers' first aircraft took to the air above the Wendover airport runway Wednesday.

It was actually the second day of test flights for the flier, constructed by students and faculty members at Utah State University, Logan. The plane made low-flying runs to the delight of about 60 spectators beside the runway who cheered as the biplane taxied along, with the engine puttering and two vehicles following it. Then it gently lifted off the asphalt and flew at an unbelievably slow rate for an aircraft, like some giant box kite, going maybe 10 feet above the surface before it touched down on the runway.

The estimated distance was about 7,000 feet — far longer than the Wright brothers' Dec. 17, 1903, flight of 120 feet — said Jill Stout, a USU student who helped build the plane.

Other students who contributed many hundreds of hours of voluntary work on the plane include James Call, Marc Karpowich and Scott Wilson.

Stout said she learned many things about aeronautics while working on the plane and said the team discovered many modifications that were needed.

"Almost every time (the Wrights) flew, they wrecked, and less than a week later they were out, they'd fixed it . . . it's been a real learning experience," she said.

Wayne Larsen of Tremonton has a flying service based in Brigham City. Project backers say Hill Air Force Base pilots had volunteered to fly the aircraft. But Larsen was chosen because he does crop dusting and the plane needs a pilot used to flying low and slow.

One designer noted that the Wright plane flies slower than the F-16 taxis.

Before the plane left the air, Larsen had one of Utah's most distinguished pilots as co-pilot: former Sen. Jake Garn of Utah. The two took the Wright flier for several practice taxi runs previous to the actual flight. The plane revved its engines and scooted smoothly along the asphalt of the taxiway, and at times the front wheels lifted from the ground, but not the main wheel carriage.

The plane will not carry such distinguished passengers or pilots until it has more flying time and is proved safe, according to project officials.

"Great," Garn said, describing the feeling of the taxi runs. "The hardest thing is the brakes. You've got to really push them hard."

The flights were delayed Wednesday while mechanics put on a new oil-cooling system. A temperature gauge had shown the oil was a little warmer than they would have liked.

The plane is far from an exact replica of the Wright brothers' 1903 model. Dave Widauf, USU aeronautics professor and director of the Wright Brothers Flyer Project, said that he and another professor, Chuck Larsen, wanted to somehow celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville's Kitty Hawk flight and came up with the idea of building the flier.

However, it uses modern composite materials and has numerous other changes to the original plans to make it safe.

"My thought was, if the Wright brothers were alive today, how would they build that airplane," Widauf said.

He said he showed his students some 1905 designs by the Wrights and asked them to analyze the aircraft. Three weeks later, they replied, "Dr. Widauf, this airplane will not fly."

As originally designed, the Wright aircraft would crash after most flights. It was extremely unstable. The only reason they were able to fly at all is "they got very good at flying a very unstable airplane," Widauf said.

One of the Wrights' errors is that the plane was not balanced properly. To compensate, the USU engineers moved the engine 6 or 8 inches forward. As originally designed, the Wright plane had a stability that would now be rated as minus 23 on the modern scale. The Air Force considers anything at minus five or worse to be unflyable.

"This one is about a plus six or a plus eight," he said.

On students' third flight Wednesday, the plane reached 75 feet.

After the third flight, mechanics tinkered with the plane, adjusting it to make improvements in handling.

"It's very exciting. Extremely," Wayne Larsen said. "That's the highest we've had it, the farthest we've had it . . . it handles really quite well. It's still way behind a conventional airplane."

The students' plane is about the same size as the original, retains the biwing design, has struts and bicycle chains to move the two wooden propellers and still has landing skids underneath. However, the skids now have modern wheels attached and the engine is a Harley Davidson motorcycle engine. The plane also now has two seats, but only the pilot was in the plane Wednesday when it took to the air. In the Wright brothers' day, one of the brothers would just lie on the lower wing.

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