Under the Hood of a Wright Flyer

Aviation historians and restorers get a rare peek at a 98-year-old engine.

Passenger Thomas Selfridge (left) and Orville Wright prepare to take off at Fort Myer, Virginia on September 17, 1908. They crashed soon after, and Selfridge became the first air fatality. NASM

After the 2003 hoopla commemorating the 100th anniversary of flight, most of us stopped thinking about the Wright brothers. But the brothers didn’t stop building airplanes in 1903. They went on to invent 18 more types, including the world’s first military airplane, built to satisfy a request by the U.S. Army Signal Corps for an observation aircraft that could carry two people and enough fuel to fly 125 miles at speeds of at least 40 mph. The airplane that eventually won the contract, the 1909 Wright Military Flyer, is in the National Air and Space Museum. Its predecessor, the one the brothers first hoped to sell to the Army, crashed during a September 1908 demonstration at Fort Myer, Virginia, killing its passenger Lieutenant Thomas O. Selfridge, who was observing the flight for the Signal Corps.

That’s the airplane Ken Hyde wants to reproduce.

“It does not exist in any form,” says Hyde, founder of the Wright Experience and an expert on the Wright brothers’ airplanes. “There’s an early Wright of the same period in the Deutches Museum in Munich,” he says, “but it has a French engine.”

He and his team have already built a dozen Wright craft for various museums and exhibitions, including the reproduction 1903 Flyer that failed to get airborne (through no fault in the aircraft) in the rainy 2003 re-enactment of the first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. (Memo to planners of flight re-enactments: Fragile reproductions fly when the weather permits, not at pre-ordained places and times.)

“Everybody’s hung up on the centennial,” says Hyde, “but that airplane never flew after ’03. We’re trying to uncover steps in the development of a technology.” The 1908 machine includes certain engineering innovations based on what the brothers had learned from their earlier flights, but would change by the time of the 1909 Flyer. “It’s a very significant link,” says Hyde.

The curatorial staff of the National Air and Space Museum agrees, which is how Hyde got permission to erect scaffolding in the Museum’s Early Flight gallery last month, climb up to the 1909 Military Flyer, and peek inside the engine—the only original piece left from the crashed 1908 model. In order to recreate the earlier machine, Hyde and his engine expert Greg Cone, have to measure and study its engine.

“It’s like Al Capone’s safe,” Hyde remarked after Museum restoration specialist Karl Heinzel removed the engine’s cover to give Cone access. It was the first time the engine had been uncovered since 1911, the year the Signal Corps transferred the airplane to the Smithsonian.

Cone shone a flashlight on the innards of the little 4-cylinder engine resting on a wooden engine mount on the biplane’s lower wing. He looked like an archaeologist peering into a pharoah’s tomb.

“They [the Wrights] knew how to get the most work done with the least amount of weight,” he marveled. Pointing to the sheet metal cover lying nearby (it encloses the engine to keep dirt out and oil in), he said, “That’s typical Wright practice. It’s about as thick as a piece of tin foil.”

The Wright Experience owns three engines manufactured for the first Wright aircraft that went into general production, the 1911 Model B. (About 125 engines were produced.) For the 1908 reproduction, Cone has created an engine casing with the help of a Baltimore, Maryland foundry, using the same casting process the Wrights’ suppliers used. The Model B casing is about the same size as the one on the 1908 engine, but there are significant differences. The earlier engine has a longer drive shaft, Cone learned from measuring the engine in the Museum, and an entirely different ignition system.

In an earlier research trip to the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, Hyde and Cone had rummaged through several shipping trunks transferred to the museum from the Wright factory. Inside were a jumble of parts and some wooden templates that were used as casting models. Cone measured, photographed, and deduced the functions of the pieces—they were unlabeled—then made his own templates and bronze parts.

In September, he held a small bronze flywheel he had made up to its Wright counterpart. “The spokes are a little thicker,” he said of his own. Sure enough, the Wright flywheel looked more graceful. He took from his pocket a bronze “cam follower,” a small connector that rests on the drive shaft and controls a pushrod to open the engine’s exhaust valve. He dropped it onto the 1908 drive shaft: wrench-like, the opening at the base fit perfectly on the shaft, and the piece was the same height as the cam follower already resting there. Cone, shining the flashlight on the piece, said slowly as he studied it, “I see that for some reason my casting does not have the sharp corners of the original.” He seemed slightly mystified. “I’ll fix that,” he said, straightening.

“This is stuff that nobody will see and that won’t matter to anybody but me,” he admits. But Cone doesn’t want to be known as an engineer. “I’d rather be known as a counterfeiter,” he says. He wants it to be exact.

When Cone and Hyde and the other members of the Wright Experience have finished their exact reproduction of the 1908 Flyer—Hyde dislikes the word replica; he says “a replica usually is just a lookalike at a distance, and can be made with any type of materials”—they plan to fly the aircraft just as the Wright brothers did nearly a century ago, for public exhibition. Hyde is looking for sponsors for the flight, and trusting in the public fascination with the Wright brothers, hopes it can take place on the National Mall, not far from where the 1909 airplane is on display, with its engine cover back on.

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