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EXPLORATIONS - December 12, 2001: Testing the Wright Brothers Flying Machine - 2001-12-11


This is Shirley Griffith.


And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Several American groups are building and testing copies of flying machines that are almost one-hundred years old. Today, we tell about why this is being done.



Orville and Wilbur Wright are famous as the first people to successfully build and fly a heavier than air, engine-powered aircraft. They did this on December Seventeenth, Nineteen-Oh-Three. They flew their machine at a place called Kitty Hawk in the southeastern state of North Carolina. At that time, they were unknown brothers who built bicycles in the city of Dayton in the middle western state of Ohio.

Recently an exact copy of one of the earlier flying machines built by the Wright brothers was tested at NASA’s Langley Research Center. The aircraft is called the Nineteen-Oh-One glider. A glider is a light weight airplane that does not have an engine. It can fly after a plane with an engine pulls it up into the air.

The glider tested at Langley is a copy of the second glider the brothers designed and built that was large enough to carry a pilot. The Wright brothers were trying to learn about flight. They built and flew several different gliders before their first powered flight. Some of these machines were successful. Some were not. However, each machine added to their knowledge.


The recent tests of the Wright brothers’ glider are part of a research project being carried out by three groups in Virginia. They are Old Dominion University in Norfolk, the Wright Experience of Warrenton, and the Discovery of Flight Foundation, also of Warrenton.

The three groups joined together in an effort to discover and record how the Wright brothers succeeded in learning to fly. Neither Wilbur nor Orville was well educated. However, they taught themselves to make a successful flying machine in about five years. Other people with scientific educations had failed in this effort again and again.


During the recent tests, engineers at Langley took exact measurements of how the glider performed. The tests at Langley are performed inside a huge wind tunnel. The wind tunnel is big enough to test full size airplanes in a controlled environment.

The tunnel produces wind at any speed the researchers choose. The wind is directed to pass the airplane’s wings to produce the effects of flight.

Robert Ash is a professor of aerospace engineering at Old Dominion University. He was the head of the flight test project of the Wright brothers’ glider. Mister Ash said the Nineteen-Oh-One glider was extremely difficult to control.

The Wright brothers had built the glider in an effort to learn how to control an aircraft in flight. They made about one-hundred flights in the glider during the summer of Nineteen-Oh-One. Some of their tests flew a distance of more than ninety-two meters. Mister Ash says the test of the Nineteen-Oh-One glider showed the Wrights that they needed to make major changes in the design of the glider’s wings and its controls.


The Wright brothers decided they needed a device to test new designs. They built a very small wind tunnel. They tested almost two-hundred designs of small size wings and planes in the tunnel. The wind tunnel helped them learn how to shape a wing so it was able to produce the lift needed to permit flight.

When a design proved successful in their wind tunnel, the Wrights would build a full size machine to test again at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Each wing they tested, each control device they designed, each aircraft they made added to their knowledge of flight.

The Wright brothers created the first wind tunnel aircraft design program. Their early methods are very similar to the research methods used by the flight industry today.



The recent tests at the Langley, Virginia wind tunnel are necessary because the Wright brothers did much of their work in secret. They did not leave many documents concerning their work.

Wilbur and Orville Wright were forced to work in secret because many other inventors were experimenting with flying machines. The brothers believed others might steal their ideas, or use their work to create a successful flying machine before they could.

The Wright brothers usually destroyed both successful and unsuccessful aircraft after they were tested. They also destroyed documents and drawings. Today, their first flying machines exist only in one-hundred year old black and white pictures. The Wright brothers never told the full story of all their many experiments.


The Discovery of Flight Foundation and the Wright Experience are researching, building, testing and recording full size copies of the Wright brothers’ designs. These include early gliders, airplanes, propellers and engines.

The groups are working to create a historical record of the Wright brothers’ efforts. This record will be complete with drawings, scientific measurements, instructions, pictures and documents.

Scientists at the Langley Wind Tunnel have already tested and recorded the Nineteen-Oh-One glider. They also have tested the Nineteen-Oh-Three, Nineteen-Oh-Four and Nineteen-Eleven Wright propellers.

The testing of the Wright brothers’ work has an important goal. On December Seventeenth, Two-Thousand and Three, at exactly ten-thirty-five in the morning, a copy of the first Wright powered airplane is expected to lift into the air. The flight will take place at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the one-hundredth anniversary of the Wright’s famous flight.



Ken Hyde is the director of the Wright Experience Organization that is building an exact copy of the first powered aircraft. Mister Hyde says the goal of the organization is to re-create what Orville and Wilbur did so history will fully understand the secrets of the Wright brothers. He says, “We know how to put a human on the moon, but we have not been successful in flying a true Wright airplane.”

Mister Hyde says, “We want to discover how the first steps were made---steps that are lost in history. And we believe that we will find those first steps and finish the first century of flight as it began, by flying over the sands of Kitty Hawk."

Mister Hyde says the re-creation of the work of the famous brothers is being aided by documents the Wrights provided courts to prove the designs were theirs. Orville Wright also left many personal letters that told in general terms about their work. Orville spent much of his life defending the fact that he and his brother were the first to invent the airplane.

Mister Hyde says this was necessary because so many other people tried to violate the brothers’ legal rights to the airplane.


Ken Hyde says it is exciting to be building the copy of the Wright Nineteen-Oh-Three Flyer. He thinks Orville and Wilbur Wright would be pleased with the results.

Mister Hyde says work on the engine is about seventy-percent complete. Most of the body of the aircraft is also complete.

The Wright Flyer has two wings, an upper wing and a lower one. Both are made of wood with a cloth covering. The wood part of the wings is now completely built.

The Wright brothers covered all the wings they built with a special cloth called muslin. The cloth was lightweight, yet strong. Mister Hyde says the cloth the Wright brothers used was called “Pride of the West.” It was a common cloth used for women’s clothing in the early Nineteen-Hundreds, but this “Pride of the West” muslin cloth is no longer made.

Mister Hyde says an exact copy of the cloth must be used for scientific measurements to be correct. Different kinds of cloth would produce different results in wind tunnel and flight tests. Finding a way to reproduce this special cloth has been the biggest problem in building a copy of the airplane


Ken Hyde says the Wright Flyer will be ready so the Wright brothers’ flight can be re-created two years from now. He says you can follow the progress of the project if you have a computer. The computer address for the World Wide Web is:



This Special English program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. Our studio engineer was Mick Shaw. This is Steve Ember.


And this is Shirley Griffith. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.