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March 20, 2003
Building on the Wright Idea

By Greg Lavine
The Salt Lake Tribune

WENDOVER -- Before Orville and Wilbur Wright launched their first biplane, they contacted the U.S. Weather Service to find a windy location for the craft's maiden flight in 1903.

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.

The Utah State Wright Flyer soared 800 feet in 9 seconds on its first flight March 11. The Wright Brothers' first successful effort went 120 feet in 12 seconds.

"It flew straight and true," Alley said of the replica. "It was absolutely beautiful."

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.

"We've got quite a bit of flying to do," Widauf said of the testing phase.

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.

"We've got a lot of bugs to work out," Alley said, explaining the craft is essentially an experimental plane.

Engineers are trying to remove nonessential equipment to reduce drag. New propellers also probably will be installed.

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.

When the USU Wright Flyer appears at the "Inventing Flight" celebration in Ohio this summer, Garn is scheduled to take to the skies in the replica biplane.

Eyeing the plane up close during the test flight last week, Garn said, "I'm just amazed that two men in 1903 could do this."



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