"LETTERS FROM THE WEST"
The Wright Flyer, USU Version
The Wright Stuff.
My old friend, John Taylor, used to run the NASA Public Affairs shop at the Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama, but he got restless and moved to Utah. This is the second in John's series of "Letters From the West."
Have you ever thought about going back in time to rewrite history? Perhaps to journey back and become a soldier in the Civil War, but take an M-16 along with you? Or do you picture yourself hanging around the Wright Brothers bicycle shop in Dayton while they were trying to figure out how to make an engine-driven machine light enough to fly through the air?
"Use composites!" you could shout. Becoming an instant hero.
Most likely they would instantly throw you out of their shop. The closest anybody could come to a "composite" a hundred years ago was probably a wooden wagon wheel with a steel rim.
But what if??
What if the brothers Wright had been able to solve the thorny issues that stood between them and powered flight by dipping into a parts box of 21st century goodies? And what if they had a hundred years of aeronautical technology development available to them? How different would their famous Wright Flyer airplane have turned out?
Out in Logan, Utah, that's exactly what Dave Widauf and Chuck Larsen wondered. The two aeronautical technology professors at Utah State University were looking for a way to celebrate the Wright Brothers centennial and at the same time provide a stiff challenge for their best engineering and aeronautical technology students.
"We wanted to build a tribute to the Wrights," explained Dr. Widauf. "Their spirit, vision and tenacity made today's aviation industry possible. To succeed, Wilbur and Orville Wright simply had to do the impossible.
"We thought a new generation should try their hand at doing the impossible also. And we wanted our students to get a taste of how the Wrights faced and successfully met the technological challenges of their day. So instead of asking them to produce a faithful replica of the Wright Brother's original design, we challenged our students to use their knowledge and skills to make it better.
"We told them it should look the same, but be light years ahead in design and manufacturing."
Just six months after the idea struck Widauf and Larsen, teams of students of Utah State's College of Engineering had designed and built a revolutionary remake of the Wright Brothers' 1905 Flyer. But this one was made with 21st century technology and materials that the famous brothers could not have even imagined. Where the Wrights had been faced with finding creative ways to save a few ounces here and there, the Utah State team managed to shave about 200 pounds off the original Flyer's 750-pound weight.
The project started in April of 2002 when two groups of students were assembled: a design team and a fabrication team. Overall program management and guidance would come from Dr. Widauf, a composites expert, and from Chuck Larsen, an airframe and powerplant specialist and FAA certified inspector. The students themselves would be the designers and builders. Technical and administrative support would come from the Utah State University Research Foundation and its noted Space Dynamics Laboratory, which has a long history of designing and building spacecraft for NASA.
The design team from the university's mechanical and aeronautical engineering department started out by reviewing a set of original plans that still had Orville Wright's notes scribbled across them. "They quickly came back and said 'It can't fly,'" Dr. Widauf remembers. "They found that the original design had a verified aerodynamic static margin of minus 23 in pitch stability. The Air Force considers any airplane with a static margin of less than minus 5 to be unflyable."
So the student design team created new airfoils for the main wing and front canard, then changed the overall geometry of the airframe. "They discovered that the Wrights had it backwards," Dr. Widauf explained. "The center of gravity was aft of the aerocenter, meaning it was way tail-heavy. They ended up moving the engine forward to solve the CG problem. Then designed a new control system, rudders, instruments, powertrain and much more."
Meet the student design team:Design Team
The Wrights flew their plane while lying prone on the lower wing. The USU students put in a control stick and seats, which they considered to be much safer. But rather than redesign the main wings to incorporate control ailerons that are standard today, lead student designer Nick Alley said his team chose instead to perfect the Wright's novel wing-warping concept that provided turning capability. "We did some sophisticated modeling," he said, "that allowed us to modify the wing warp system so that the deflection you set with the control stick will provide about the same roll response that you'd find with a Piper Super Cub." Meaning that when the pilot calls for a turn, this Flyer should turn readily. Orville wasn't that lucky.
Then they integrated all these changes into a single system. The final design still looked like the original flyer, but achieved a healthy verified aerodynamic stability reading of plus 8. Now it was time to build it.
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