News

Utah replica to fly on Wright centennial

By Joe Bauman
Deseret News
December 14, 2003

Orville Wright is at the controls, lying prone on the lower wing, and Wilbur Wright just released his hold on the wing, on Dec. 17, 1903.
Archives of The Library of Congress

The centennial of flight will get a special twist in Utah on Wednesday when a Tremonton man will pilot an updated replica of the Wright brothers' first flying machine.

Wayne Larsen, who owns a Brigham City flight service, is scheduled to fly the plane that day at the Brigham City Airport, provided the weather cooperates.

Dec. 17 is exactly 100 years after Wilbur and Orville Wright's first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. But Larsen almost certainly will stay aloft longer than Orville's 12 seconds, and the flight should cover more distance than that trip's 120 feet. According to a press notice from Utah State University, the approaching centennial of powered flight prompted students and professors at the Logan university to design and build a flying replica of the Wright Flyer using space-age material. Work on the project was carried out by students of mechanical and aerospace engineering as well as some studying aviation technology. With help from the USU College of Engineering and Space Dynamics Laboratory, they built the replica using Kevlar and graphite, composite materials manufactured in Utah. The completed plane has been flying at air shows and special demonstrations since last March. "On July 5, 2003, the USU Wright Flyer became the first and only flyer to fly over Huffman Prairie Flying Field (Ohio) since the Wright brothers," the release states.

Larsen told the Deseret Morning News he has accumulated close to eight hours' flying time in the airplane. That doesn't sound like much for modern aircraft, but for this ancient variety it's a huge amount of time above the ground. Safety restrictions require him not to fly over crowds or residential neighborhoods, so the flyer spends its time in the air over runways. Recently, at an air show hosted by Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, the airstrip was so large, with parallel taxiways, Larsen said, "I was actually able to fly figure eights and circles in front of the crowd."

One mishap occurred in March at the Wendover Airport, when the USU airplane had just begun to fly. "We had a propeller mount failure at Wendover," shattering the propeller, Larsen said. It "would have been a disaster if we had been in the air." But the plane was on the ground at the time, going through a high-speed taxiing while Larsen gave rides to students and others involved with the project. The incident uncovered a weak spot in the design that experts "were able to re-engineer and modify," Larsen said. "It's done much better since." The team had been planning to change the propellers anyhow, he said.

So far, the flyer has made 289 flights. One of the highlights: When Larsen and the flyer were in Ohio, he met two of the Wright brothers' closest living relatives, Stephen Wright and Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandnephew and great-grandniece of the duo. "Wilbur and Orville never had any children of their own," he said. The Wrights' relatives are "just absolutely wonderful people, delightful people," Larsen said.

So how does the USU airplane handle? "It actually flies reasonably well for what it is," Larsen said. "It's a 100-year-old design, but we've had sufficient improvements on it so that it at least flies reliably and has avoided wrecking to this point."