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Nearly 100 years later, a group of Utah State University engineers huddled around a replica Wright Flyer last week discussing the gusts blowing across Wendover Airport's main runway. Only in 2003, wind was the enemy.
"The Wright Brothers' flier was extremely underpowered," said Nick Alley, a USU grad student who helped manage the project. "They needed a head wind to take off. We'd like the wind to be predictable."
On Dec. 17, 1903, the original wood and canvas biplane flew above a wind-swept Kitty Hawk, N.C. Later versions of the craft were flown in Ohio, where the Wright Brothers lived, and required a catapult system to launch.
USU engineering students designed and built a replica of a catapult-driven 1905 Wright Flyer to honor the 100th anniversary of powered flight. Instead of constructing a true replica, the USU group created its Wright Flyer with technologies that would be available to the Wright Brothers today. The 2003 Wright Flyer, for example, can take off without a boost from a catapult.
In addition to cutting-edge materials, such as composites and Kevlar-coated foam, this Wright Flyer is powered by a Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine. The pilot also has a seat on the USU biplane, while the Wright Brothers were forced to lie down on their plane's bottom wing.
Among the similarities between the Wright Flyer and the USU version, aside from sharing a similar silhouette, is that both fliers use "wing warping." The Wright Flyers relied on pilots twisting the entire wing for moving up and down, while today's aircraft have flaps on the back of the wing to help control altitude.
A test pilot logged less than an hour of flight time over the course of two days in Wendover. The longest jaunt lasted 5 minutes and covered about four miles over the west desert, said USU engineer Dave Widauf, who was in charge of the project.
Before the plane is cleared for other pilots to fly, a test pilot must make flights totaling 10 hours. Most future test flights probably will be made from Logan or Brigham City now that the designers know the craft can safely fly, he said.
Former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn is among the pilots eager to take a spin in the Wright Flyer replica. Garn was on hand for the plane's first public flight March 12. Before the flight, he received a sneak peek as he rode the plane during a few high-speed taxiing maneuvers.
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