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March 13, 2003
Wright Replica Celebrates 100 Years of Flight

By Greg Lavine
The Salt Lake Tribune

A replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer, built by Utah State University students and piloted by Wayne Larsen, flies over the runway at the Wendover airport on Wednesday as a chase vehicle follows.
(Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune)

WENDOVER -- The distant white biplane rolling down the runway seemed like a mirage shimmering in the west desert.

Rumbling closer, the throaty roar of its Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine grew louder as the Wright Flyer replica inched airborne.

Almost 100 years after the Wright Brothers introduced the world to powered flight, a Utah State University-designed replica made its public flying debut Wednesday at Wendover Airport. A half-dozen secret flights took place Tuesday to make sure the craft was airworthy.

"It exceeded all our expectations," said Dave Widauf, the USU engineer who led the project, of Tuesday's premiere flight. "We surpassed the Wright Brothers by many, many feet."

Of course, the USU students who designed the replica enjoyed the advantages of computers, state-of-the-art materials and a century's worth of flying know-how. The improved Wright Flyer's maiden flight lasted nine seconds and covered 800 feet, versus the original's first flight of 12 seconds and 120 feet on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

While a small fleet of true replicas will take to the skies this year, USU had other ideas. Students were asked to re-create a 1905 Wright Flyer using material that would be available to the brothers today -- carbon-fiber composites, Kevlar-coated foam and even a dash of duct tape.

Nick Alley, a USU graduate student who helped managed the project, was excited and nervous before the first USU flight. A team of 10 undergraduate engineering students worked to prepare the new Wright Flyer.

"You're confident in what you've done," he said. "Yet, you're not sure."

Around noon on Tuesday, any worries evaporated as the Wright Flyer flew.

Widauf shared Alley's enthusiasm, which spilled over into Wednesday's third flight; it hit 55 mph and an altitude of 80 feet. Widauf, standing next to Alley, whooped and pumped his fist in triumph while clinging to the back of a truck chasing the plane.

Former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, a one-time astronaut and pilot, attended the ceremony, but his flying was limited to his own single-propeller Navion. While Garn could only ride the Wright Flyer on the runway, he is expected to pilot the plane at the "Inventing Flight" celebration in Dayton, Ohio, this summer. Orville and Wilbur Wright worked in Dayton and did many later flights in Ohio.

"From what I hear, it handles beautifully," Garn said.

The only pilot allowed to fly the USU Wright Flyer was Wayne Larsen, who runs an air service out of Brigham City. Larsen has logged airtime on everything from biplanes to Cessna jets.

"They both fly, but no other comparison between the two," the test pilot said of modern jets and propeller-powered biplanes.

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