Meet Fred Culick
Project Engineer, 1903 Wright Flyer Project,
|the wing span is about seven feet.|
| A model of 1/6 scale means that
the real airplane is six times as large as the model.
|You can get an idea how large the model is by comparing pieces with my hand in the photographs.|
|In December 1981 we tested the model
in the large Caltech wind tunnel.
|It was a successful program.|
I'll explain later what testing a model means and why we do it--why it is important. The model now hangs in our living room at home in Altadena.
Before I had finished my little project with the 'Flyer' model, I read a notice in the newsletter of the Los Angeles AIAA Section. It announced that the 'Flyer' I had seen in San Diego had been destroyed in a fire. The AIAA received $20,000 from the insurance. Howard Marx, who at that time had responsibility for the money in the AIAA, decided that they should construct a flying copy of the airplane. With his announcement that I had read, he was seeking volunteers to help. I answered.
It happened that I was the first to respond to Howard's call for help. One night we met in Los Angeles for dinner to discuss the possibilities. A third man was there, but he soon moved from the Los Angeles area and was no longer associated with the project.
I described to Howard my plan for carrying out wind tunnel tests and obtaining the first data about the flight characteristics of the 1903 'Flyer.' We knew that would be useful information for building a piloted version. Why? Because we could then make small changes in the design to give us an aircraft safer to fly. The original airplane was difficult and dangerous to fly--very unstable. So Howard immediately accepted my offer to make my test results available to the project--but in return, I wanted to be the first pilot. He agreed, but said I would also have to do some work and he appointed me Chief Engineer. (He was the first Chairman of the AIAA Wright 'Flyer' Project). That's how the project began over dinner one night in Los Angeles in 1979!
In late December 1980 I tested the model at Caltech, with the help of several others who knew better than I how to run the large wind tunnel. The results were published in a report. Another group associated with the AIAA Wright 'Flyer' project built and tested a 1/8 scale model of the 'Flyer.' With all of these data we already knew a lot about how the airplane should fly--but not everything.
The structure of our airplane to be tested this March was actually completed and assembled in 1984. It was displayed publicly in several places before we disassembled it and covered it. In 1993 we carried out static load tests to prove to NASA that it wouldn't fall apart during the testing in their wind tunnel. That task alone took nearly three years. (Remember, we are volunteers, working mostly on Saturdays!).
That's the airplane you will see being lifted into the tunnel on 19 February and tested beginning 1 March. There is indeed a great deal of history behind it and how our airplane finally rests in the tunnel has been a long story.
Why Do We Test Models in a Wind Tunnel?
Why Are the Tests of the Wright 'Flyer' Important?
Before we fly a type of airplane that nobody has flown before we want to know as much as possible about how it will fly. We want to know many things. How it will move when we move the controls? How will it act when it is struck by strong gusts of wind? How fast will it go? And--most importantly--will it be safe to fly? When the Wright Brothers invented their airplane, there were no books they could read to learn how to build a good airplane--not even a BAD airplane! There was little previous knowledge, they had to experiment and learn how to make things work. They taught themselves how to fly. They really didn't know whether their airplane was bad, pretty good, or very good--they knew it worked, better than anybody else's, and they proved that by flying demonstrations. And other people bought it!
It was a great invention, the first really big invention of the twentieth century. It began all flying everywhere. It led to airlines, to warplanes, airplanes that you and I can fly, and eventually to the Space Shuttle. What a marvelous achievement! It's a hugely important part of our history, not just of science, engineering and technology, but of our society, how we travel, take holidays, meet people, work...the invention of the airplane changed the lives of people in ways bigger than any other invention until computers and the Internet!
So it is very important, as part of our heritage, to understand what the Wright Brothers did, how they did it (lots of perseverance, hard work and clever ideas!), and finally how their airplane worked. That's what we have been doing in the AIAA Wright 'Flyer' Project. We learned all about the Wright Brothers' work, we know how to build a copy of their airplane, and now with the tests in NASA's wind tunnel at the Ames Research Center we are going to learn exactly how good (or bad!) the airplane was. The results of these tests will give us the answers to the questions I asked above--and many more.
All airplane companies do wind tunnel tests of their new airplanes for exactly the same reasons. They can learn, before they actually risk flying the airplane, whether it will fly the way they want it to. And there's another interesting and important thing we can do. Using the information we get from wind tunnel tests, we can build simulators that pilots can sit in and learn how to fly the airplane before they actually fly it. A simulator is really a big (and very expensive!) video game with all the controls of the actual airplane and a screen that shows exactly what you would see if you were sitting in the cockpit and actually flying.
So after our wind tunnel tests, we will know how the Wright 1903 'Flyer' flies--everything there is to know about it. But what about that model I built and tested at Caltech? Didn't we learn a lot from those test results? Yes--almost everything we need to know. And we learned a lot also from the 1/8 scale model I mentioned. However, besides the important historical reasons for testing our full-size airplane, there are technical reasons for our tests in March. I'll mention two.
First, the 'Flyer' has two large propellers that produce their own wind. That wind blows over the vertical rear tail and affects the way the airplane flies. Also, ahead of the propellers, two streams of wind blow over the wing before going through the propellers. Those streams also affect the way the airplane flies. We don't know anything about those effects. My 1/6 scale model had two propellers and an electric motor but, although everything worked perfectly, I didn't have enough time to do tests. So this is something we must learn in March and that is why the first series of tests will be done with the propellers turned by a very powerful electric motor.
Second, the 'Flyer' has wings that are twisted or warped by the pilot to control the wing tips up or down, to 'bank' the airplane and make it turn. That method of control was invented by the Wrights. Now airplanes have 'ailerons,' a French word meaning small wings. To build our flying version we need to know better how the wing warping works to affect the flight of the airplane, especially with the propellers turning at full speed. We learned some of that from the tests of my 1/6 scale model, but we want to learn if the full-size airplane behaves in exactly the same way.
The Wright Brothers' 'Flyer' was a very difficult and dangerous airplane to fly. Wilbur and Orville were successful partly because they had a lot of practice with gliders that were similar to their 1903 'Flyer.' You can think of their gliders almost as their kind of simulator! But we won't have lots of practice and we don't want to fly an unsafe airplane. We want to know what small changes we can make so it will be safer to fly. I believe that you won't be able to notice the modifications we make in our flying version of the 'Flyer' (unless you look very carefully!).