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As the nation -- and the world -- watches to see the replica of the Wright Brothers' Flyer take off on Wednesday, the 100th anniversary of their historic flight, few will be watching more closely than Old Dominion University's Robert Ash, Colin Britcher and Drew Landman.

That's because the trio, along with several other university researchers and students, conducted the all-important testing of the replica in the College of Engineering and Technology's Langley Full-Scale Wind Tunnel to determine how and under what conditions the aircraft would fly.

Ken Hyde, founder of the Wright Experience in Warrenton, Va., has passionately worked for years to uncover the secrets of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the two Ohio bicycle maker brothers credited with making the first successful flight. Hyde and his team have painstakingly recreated propellers, gliders and aircraft in an attempt to figure out just how the Wright brothers flew for 12 seconds in 27 mile an hour winds over the sand dunes of North Carolina's Outer Banks on Dec.17, 1903.

Four years ago Hyde turned to Old Dominion University to better understand the engineering science behind the Wrights' efforts. Hyde started by bringing wooden propellers, hand crafted to Wright specifications, to the wind tunnel, which is owned by NASA Langley and operated by Old Dominion. Then he progressed to authentic reproductions of two Wright gliders and then, earlier this year, the Wright Flyer. All were tested by Old Dominion engineering professors and students, including engineering professors Britcher and Landman and Interim Vice President for Research Ash.

"The Wright propellers were 20 years ahead of their time, " said Ash, Wright test program manager for ODU. "They were able to convert engine power into thrust with the efficiency required to enable a small and heavy gasoline engine to propel the Wright Flyer. The December 17, 1903 flight was not possible without the Wright propeller designs and this contribution has been largely overlooked."

What the Wrights didn't do was design a stable aircraft, according to Ash and the other researchers, who studyied hours of wind tunnel data not only of the Wright Flyer reproduction but also two Wright gliders. "Just like their bicycle heritage, the Wrights deliberately exploited instabilities to effect dynamic flight control," said Ash. "Flying the Wright Flyer is like trying to keep a bicycle upright in three dimensions."

The nature of the aircraft affected the way the four Wright Experience pilots trained. They've gotten expert guidance from a simulator, created using the Langley Full-Scale Tunnel data, and a former NASA test pilot, Scott Crossfield. Crossfield was the first American to fly at twice the speed of sound, 50 years ago.

"They're all very capable aviators," said Crossfield. "But they've had to unlearn most of what they know about flying stable airplanes. Very few people have flown unstable airplanes … they've been lucky to survive them."

What may make the difference on Dec. 17 as the Wright Experience tries to recreate history at the First Flight Centennial Celebration is the weather. All the experts agree the pilot will need plenty of wind to help the Wright Flyer aloft.

The First Flight Centennial Celebration runs from Dec, 12-17 at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. It will feature not only the Wright Flyer recreation, but also appearances by a NASA astronaut and a number of NASA exhibits.

This article was posted on: December 15, 2003

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