Whither wind for Wrights

One in a series of occasional articles

KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. - The pilot who will step onto the sands near Kitty Hawk tomorrow to re-enact the Wright brothers' first flight 100 years ago will share the centennial spotlight with an unpredictable member of the team: Mother Nature.

Besides worrying about rain, those involved are concerned about the wind. If there's not enough of it, the 35,000 spectators expected to gather at the Wright memorial will learn what the brothers found out: If there's no wind, there's no way.

They need the Wright weather. At 10:35 a.m. Dec. 17, 1903, the Wrights made the world's first controlled, sustained flight in a heavier-than-air machine thanks to a gusty and frigid nor'easter that whipped up a 27 mph wind to carry them into history.

Tomorrow's forecast calls for 20 to 25 mph winds and a 60 percent chance of rain. Organizers don't expect winds to be a problem, but say a downpour similar to what occurred here Sunday would lead to a washout. A light rain won't halt the flight plan.

The re-enactment "is very weather-dependent," says Terry Queijo, 48, of Trappe, Md., who will portray Wilbur Wright, observing the takeoff. "My friends ask me all the time, 'What happens if you can't fly and all those people have come all that way?' Thank God we're not the only thing going on" that day.

Not the only thing, but certainly the most anticipated. The re-enactment will culminate the First Flight Centennial Celebration in North Carolina, a six-day affair.

If the weather cooperates, pilot Kevin Kochersberger, an associate engineering professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, will assume the role of Orville, board a 1903 Wright Flyer replica and at 10:35 a.m., try to re-create the bicycle mechanic's historic 120-foot, 12- second hop. The weather conditions are all the more vital given that Kochersberger will be aboard the most authentic Flyer replica ever built.

The plane was copied to the smallest detail possible by the Wright Experience, a plane-restoration facility in Warrenton, Va. Wind-tunnel tests show that it is vulnerable to the same weather conditions as the original and also shares another unflattering trait: instability. (Orville once said it flew "like a cross between a bucking bronco and a roller coaster.")

"Its authenticity detracts from its ability to fly," says Nick Engler, director of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co. in Dayton, Ohio, which builds Wright aircraft to educate children about flight. "[The Flyer] is a very marginal airplane. The more authentic you make it, the more you narrow your chances of getting it off the ground."

Powered by a 12-horsepower engine, the plane is so marginal that aviation historians say its performance would be cramped by warm weather. It operates better in the higher density of cold air, which offers extra lift for its wood-and-cloth wings and more efficient combustion for its antiquated engine.

"Everything is a factor," says Ken Kellet, 50, an aircraft restorer and demonstration pilot for the Fantasy of Flight Museum in Polk City, Fla. "The weight of the pilot, the wind direction, the temperature. A number of factors have to be in their favor."

He should know. For the 75th anniversary of powered flight in 1978, Kellet attempted to re-enact Orville's flight at Kill Devil Hills aboard a replica he spent $3,000 building. But a flaw in his wing fabric and insufficient wind conspired. He soared 40 feet.

"It was enough to be called successful," Kellett recalls. "The press didn't fry me."

To ensure a greater chance of success, the Wright Experience team will use 120 feet of launching rail (twice as much as the Wrights used) and high-tech environmental sensors.

"If we had a 27 mph wind and 40-degree Fahrenheit like they did, we could take off just the way they did," says team researcher and mechanic Bill Hadden. "The airplane is authentic, but the atmosphere is different, so the only thing we could do is add more rail."

The additional rail length gives the plane more time to gather speed, allowing the team a broader range of weather conditions under which to take off. Case in point: During a successful test flight in 58-degree weather last month, Korchersberger flew about 100 feet in four seconds with the help of a 15 to 18 mph headwind.

The plane will take off from the exact location where the Wright brothers succeeded 100 years ago - a spot that creates its own complications.

In 1903, the site was a string of dunes known as Kill Devil Hills, then part of the fishing town of Kitty Hawk.

Now it is a town of about 6,000 residents. Growth and development have given rise to trees and buildings that could hinder the kind of wind strength the bicycle mechanics scouted.

Standing near the "hallowed ground," Hadden, 42, says: "The wind isn't steady. It's gusty. If you hold an anemometer up it says 15, 13, 17, 14 [mph]. It's all over the place. Now if you go down to the beach, it's 15, 16, 15 [mph]. That's the way this area was a hundred years ago."

In light of that, Kochersberger and crew are keeping a close eye on weather patterns through a wireless system made by the Baltimore-based Belfort Instrument Co. that allows real-time monitoring of climatic parameters, including local winds.

It's only fitting. In 1903, the 175-year-old company had weather-recording equipment at Weather Station No. 6 in Kitty Hawk as part of a national network for the U.S. Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service). The Wrights monitored those instruments as they prepared for their famous flight.

Assuming the replica does get airborne, Kochersberger, 42, will have the tricky task of flying it. The plane's instability in pitch, yaw and roll - an aircraft's ability to move up and down, side to side and rotate - make it a handful to control.

That's the moment when the resident of Honeoye Falls, N.Y., will rely on the state-of-the-art pilot training he received at the Wright Experience facility.

For more than a year, he has practiced aboard a reproduction of the 1902 Wright glider - the precursor to the Flyer - and on flight simulators based on data from wind-tunnel tests of the glider and airplane replicas.

Kochersberger, who is physically in the range of the Wrights' heights and weights of about 5 feet 10 and 150 pounds, donned a helmet and safety harnesses once last month and again Dec. 3 to train at the Wright memorial with the Flyer replica. He made two successful test flights of more than 100 feet.

But underscoring the riskiness of the feat, Queijo, an American Airlines captain, crashed the replica during a test flight last month. She was uninjured in the crackup, but says that as she walked away from the plane it resembled a "pile of matchsticks." The plane was repaired after the crash.

If Mother Nature is not in the mood, organizers say they will delay the attempt until later in the day or broadcast video of one of the test flights. But the crew remains optimistic.

"Everybody is ready to go," says Ken Hyde, 64, president and founder of the Wright Experience. "It's just a matter of getting Mother Nature to work with us. I think she will."

Others aren't as confident.

Wright historian Tom D. Crouch has visited Kill Devil Hills on Dec. 17 for the past 20 years and has seen "gorgeous days" and pouring-down rain.

"You're really throwing the dice when it comes to weather on the Outer Banks," says Crouch.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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