Not Quite Wright

By now the world is well aware that the effort to reenact the first flight of the Wright Brothers’ seminal airplane on its centennial day&#151December 17, 2003&#151was a giant flop. Following encouraging words by President Bush, 750 or so journalists and an estimated 35,000 paid spectators witnessed a multi-million-dollar replica of the original Wright Flyer power itself one or two feet into the air for a couple of seconds before gently settling into sodden sands at the very site where the Wright brothers taught the world how to fly.

Automobile Magazine was a witness at this event because the Ford Motor Company poured heart, soul, and millions of dollars of financial backing into the effort. The key return on its investment: a ceremonial transfer of ownership from the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA, the organization that had the replica craft built and orchestrated the “Countdown to Kitty Hawk” event) to Edsel Ford, great grandson of the company’s founder, who will in turn donate the craft to the Henry Ford Museum.

What possessed Ford to become involved with an enterprise that’s obviously tangential to the business of building and selling cars and trucks? There are three explanations. The first is because Henry Ford expressed a burning desire to permanently display the Wright Flyer in 1925, while the museum bearing his name was merely a concept. (The original craft was damaged and never accurately rebuilt.) The second is because the reenactment flight served as an emphatic end to a full year of celebration surrounding the Ford Motor Company’s 1903 birth. And the third is the classically American desire to be associated with near impossible feats in spite of the obvious risk of grandiose disaster. It seems to be in our spirit to forge stubbornly ahead against tall odds.

The millions Ford invested were hardly squandered. After fastidious research, a Wright Flyer was carefully constructed to be as faithful to the original design as possible by craftsmen at The Wright Experience, a Virginia enterprise headed by retired airline pilot Ken Hyde. Testing at NASA’s nearby Langley Research Center wind tunnel consumed at least half a million dollars. Jim and Steve Hay, two Wisconsin machinists who’ve been studying and building Wright engines since the 1970s constructed the 3.3-liter, 18-horsepower, four-cylinder power source and tested it at Ford Motor Company laboratories. Three able pilots selected by EAA were trained by the legendary Scott Crossfield, the first pilot to exceed Mach 2. A coin flip was used to decide that Dr. Kevin Kochersberger, a Rochester Institute of Technology engineering professor and amateur pilot, would handle the Flyer’s controls before the assembled masses.

The moment of truth for the reborn Wright Flyer.

Ford was a logical benefactor because of its long history of aviation involvement. Ford built military aircraft engines for use in both world wars. Notable Ford firsts in the aviation field include guided missiles (1918), the airport (1925), the paved runway (1928), all-metal aircraft (1925-33), a US Air Mail contract (1926), a patent for aircraft brakes (1930), and a commercial pilot training program (1931). Henry’s only son Edsel Ford toyed with a Model T-powered aircraft in 1909. During World War II, the Ford Motor Company manufactured 8600 B-24 Liberator bombers in an innovative plant capable of rolling out one finished plane every hour. In modern times, Ford dabbled in the aerospace business before finally terminating flight-related activities in 1990.

Weather conditions at the Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, site were appalling. Heavy rainfall disabled metal detecting equipment used to screen spectators hoping to take their grandstand seats in time to hear entertainer and Boeing 707 owner John Travolta deliver his greeting before the President entered the stage. Since more tedious hand-inspection procedures were necessary for security, hundreds if not thousands of visitors&#151including this reporter and Wright brothers’ descendants&#151stood for several hours in the cold rain. Those hoping the President might announce a new space exploration initiative were disappointed but Bush did raise the crowd’s spirits with his eloquent acknowledgements of how the Wrights’ accomplishments so profoundly altered our lives.

As if on cue, the rains ceased moments after the President’s helicopter lifted off the hallowed grounds. One hour or so after the 10:35 AM centennial moment, the craft was wheeled out of its cozy confines onto the saturated field. The engine was started and the skillful Dr. Kochersberger performed his stunt while the world watched. What went wrong? The EAA is not providing details but my theory is that an ignition problem experienced early in the week was not properly resolved and when EAA president Tom Poberezny who managed the demonstration deemed the headwinds adequate, the engine was running on only three of its four cylinders. (EAA reported that winds faltered from 12 knots at the commencement of the craft’s run along its taxi rail to only 6-7 knots when the pilot pulled the control stick back to take flight). With the likely 25-30 percent loss of available power and unfavorable wind, replicating the Wright brothers’ epic accomplishment was not possible. Steady rain and fickle winds later in the day scrubbed any further chance of flying.

In other words, two young men from Ohio who never received a high school education outsmarted the Ford Motor Company and all its experts steeped in a full century’s worth of learning. That’s a humbling thought and one I hope Ford Motor Company management will remember the next time they commit to a high-risk venture.