History Channel films Wright Flyer project

By Arrin Brunson
The Herald Journal
July 19, 2002

Eli Lucero/Herald Journal

The Wright Flyer project at Utah State University has captured the attention of nationally renowned History Channel, but Dave Widauf, director of aviation at USU, said he isn't one bit surprised.

"We saw the vision," Widauf said. "Nobody else did, but we had some vision that this would be a really neat event."

USU and the Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) coordinated the construction of two life-size flying replicas using space-age materials for the 100th anniversary celebration of the Wright Brothers first successful powered flight in 1903. Widauf said he wouldn't be surprised if the project also gleaned interest of the National Geographic and Discovery Channel.

A year in advance of the celebration, though, it was The History Channel that was first on the scene in Logan this week. The History Channel is very committed to celebrating the important anniversary of the Wright flight in 1903, said Rick Beyer, director, producer and writer of the film.

A two-man crew from Boston began filming on the USU campus early Thursday morning. The finished result will be a two-hour documentary to be aired on The History Channel in conjunction with other anniversary activities some time in 2003.

Engineers, students, faculty and local business sponsors have contributed to the design and construction of two replicas using space-age materials to improve upon the original Wright design. This is the factor that caught the attention of Beyer, owner of SMASH Entertainment Group, which was contracted by the History Channel to make the documentary.

"It's just really different and interesting, the way that they're approaching it and the way that they're modifying the plane," Beyer said. "They're trying to take the basic design of a Wright airplane and push it to the maximum potential."

Widauf said the media attention is both exciting and fascinating. The amount of time required to film a routine interview came as a surprise to Widauf, who got his nose powered before he went before the camera Friday morning at Utah State.

"They've spent better than an hour here setting the lighting up," Widauf said. "It's an art form and they're very good at it."

The nearly 12-hour-long days of filming haven't left much time for Beyer and photography director Dillard Morrison to explore the territory, although they said breakfast at Angie's Restaurant every morning gives them a glimpse at Cache Valley life.

"It's very beautiful here," Beyer said. "We will be coming back. I would just love to bring my family here."

Cache Valley resident Jon Watkins is the third member of the production crew. The KSAR production company employee is the audio manager for the History Channel's Wright documentary.

"This is one of the more exciting partnerships I've been a part of," Watkins said. "It will be exciting next fall to see this program and to see Cache Valley representing Utah State on a major television channel."

Ying Yen, a student involved in the construction of the planes, said when he came from Taiwan several years ago to study aeronautical maintenance at USU, he never dreamed of this.

"When I was a child, I read a lot of stories about the Wright Brothers but I cannot believe after 20 years that have a chance to participate in this project," he said.

James Call, USU aviation maintenance student, did some machining demonstrations on film Thursday and welcomed the chance to tell a national audience about the project. Call said the amount of time it takes to build the planes is immense and he has already put in 230 hours this summer. The most important aspect of the project, Call has learned, is the historical significance of the Wright Brothers' flight nearly 100 years ago.

"It is important for people to remember where we started with aviation," Call said. "The Wright Brothers were really ahead of their time and were great pilots to fly an aircraft that was so unstable."

Once the cameras are gone, efforts to finish the construction of the replicas will again be the center of attention in the hangar at Utah State. Widauf said the planes will be finished in plenty of time and they will fly.

The more pressing question, Widauf said, is how to fund the transportation of the vehicles. Plans are to transport a replica throughout the state as an outreach tool for the university and to have former astronaut Jake Garn fly the USU replica in the Wright Brothers' hometown of Dayton, Ohio at the July 2003 anniversary celebration.

"We're going to be one of the major events there at that celebration and they're more excited back in Dayton about our project, I feel, than our own local people are because we haven't got the story out really well," Widauf said. "This is going to be a big thing for Cache Valley. This is huge."