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Meet Fred Culick


a phot of Fred Culick

Project Engineer, 1903 Wright Flyer Project,
Los Angeles Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Chat Archives

Airplanes and flying are among the most vivid of my earliest memories of Camden, Maine where I lived the first six years of my life. The sound of an aircraft flying overhead would bring me running out of the house to see it. When I was four years old, the man next door (he had a cute daughter my age) made wonderful large models powered by gasoline-fueled engines. I remember kneeling outside a basement window, with my first girlfriend, watching him build his models. He used to taxi-test them in the street. Later, one flew out-of-sight at a contest and was lost. So I grew up drawing real airplanes and making models myself--I still do. And I still collect and read magazines and books about airplanes--a habit I had very early, as soon as I started going to school.

I was very lucky. I owe a lifelong debt to that man next door (I don't even remember his name) because my early love of airplanes has been a lasting influence. Having a strong interest in something like that makes life a lot more fun and interesting. And it makes it easier to do the hard work that is always necessary to succeed.

Another lesson I learned from my hobby of making model airplanes was independence. I always lived in small towns and I had only one or two friends who also built models. Although I received encouragement and support from my parents, I learned what to do almost entirely alone. The first model airplanes I ever saw fly were ones I built—a great feeling of success. So I learned early not to be afraid of doing or learning something without somebody else's help. I learned to accept my own mistakes--and always try again. Very important.

Several good courses of physics in high school (Phillips Exeter Academy in my hometown of Exeter, N.H.) very nearly persuaded me to study physics in college, but aircraft won and I finally received my undergraduate and graduate degrees from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics.

Following my undergraduate work and one year of graduate school, I studied physics and applied mathematics for a year, supported by a Fulbright Fellowship, at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I spent the summer studying at Cambridge University in England. That was my first experience living outside the United States and began my deep interest and participation, professionally, in international activities.

After receiving my Ph.D. degree form MIT in 1961, I came to the California Institute of Technology where I have been ever since, teaching and doing research. I have worked in several different fields but most of my research with students is now concerned with problems of combustion in gas turbines, solid propellant rockets, and liquid propellant rockets. As part of this work, I have collaborations with people in eight other universities in this country; two universities and a research laboratory in Italy; a research and development organization (ONERA) in France; and with eight research institutes in Russia. As a result, not only do I travel quite a bit but we enjoy having many visitors from the U.S. and from foreign countries.

In fact, my family also has considerable international flavor. My wife is a musician and owns a music store. She lived in Germany twice, three months each time, once during high school and once during her college years; she speaks German quite well. In 1992 we lived in Paris, France for six months--we both speak a little French and read the language fairly well. I lived in Russia for ten weeks in 1975 and I visit there often. My competence with the Russian language is very low. Our oldest daughter majored in political science and Chinese in college and subsequently lived in Nanking, China for three months and Taipei, Taiwan for six months. Our son is married to a Danish girl and our younger daughter is married to an English fellow.

Those international connections are one attractive aspect of my career as a professor at Caltech. I have many good friends in many countries. Generally, I would say that the two most positive aspects of being associated with a university are the personal freedom and working with students--including teaching classes. Actually, I did not decide to work in a university until I was in graduate school. Like all of my friends here, I certainly did not expect that I would spend most of my time writing, preparing lectures and speaking to groups, either in classes or at meetings of people doing research similar to mine. So, I have realized that in some ways the most important part of my education was learning to speak and write English correctly! That means also reading a lot, to learn the language. What a surprise!

Despite my very early and deep interest in airplanes and flying, I didn't take flying instruction until 1966. I devoted much of my time that summer learning to fly; I received my private pilot's license in September. Several months later, a friend, also a professor at Caltech, persuaded me to buy a one-half share of his airplane. For most of the time since then I have shared ownership of an airplane. Presently, I own a Cessna 182 with retractable landing gear and a turbo-charged engine. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I have never tried to obtain my license for flying on instruments. Therefore I fly only in good weather. I have flown a total of about 1200 hours.

I've had many wonderful and memorable flights, but probably the best was in 1978 with my young son, Alex. We flew around the United States, taking off and landing only once in each of the forty-eight contiguous states, the only time that has been done, I think—so it's a sort of record! The main purpose was to have a flying holiday together, but it was also a kind of private celebration of two anniversaries. About 50 years before our flight, in May 1927, Charles Lindbergh had been the first person to fly from New York to Paris. More importantly, the Wright Brothers had made their first successful powered flights 75 years before, on 17 December 1903. Alex and I flew 8400 miles in 66 hours, in a period of two weeks. We visited many interesting places, including the birthplaces of Lindbergh and the Wrights. By the way, it's interesting to plot the course for a flight like that. We were very surprised that the distance we flew was so short to touch every state. (Try it! You'll learn some geography very quickly!) See our Flight Log!

My Involvement in the AIAA Wright 'Flyer' Project

One Saturday in the winter of 1977, I took a youth ice hockey team to San Diego to play two games, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. (I was the coach; I also played with the Caltech ice hockey team until I broke my left leg in 1983.) Between those two games I had a lot of time so I visited the Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park, mainly to see Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis." There was also a full-size copy of the 1903 Wright 'Flyer,' built by the Los Angeles AIAA Section in 1953. When I saw the aircraft, a little strange-looking because it has the horizontal tail in front (the 'canard'), I suddenly realized that I did not know why the airplane had that unusual shape. It's an interesting question: why did the Wrights put the tail in front? We know just by looking around that almost all aircraft have tails in the rear! A little later, in the museum bookshop, I bought a wonderful book called "Aeronautics from 1799 to 1909" written by Charles Gibbs-Smith, an English historian, whom I later came to know well. That experience began my interest--and a lot of work--in aeronautical history.

Sometime later I had the idea that it would be fun--perhaps even interesting to others--to build and test a model of the 1903 'Flyer.' I was able to obtain a little financial support from NASA to help pay for the model and the wind tunnel tests. So I designed and constructed the 1/6 scale model shown in the photographs--
a photo of Fred Culick with the model of the Wright flyeer with a wing span of seven feet 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.
a photo of the ribs being covered with fabric
a photo of the tail 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.
a photo of the cannard
a photo of the model mounted on a sting in the 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.

Sometime after the project started--and we quickly attracted many volunteers--we received a proposal from people at the NASA Ames Research Laboratory to test our full-size airplane in their large, low-speed wind tunnel. We accepted the offer and decided to build two aircraft: one to test in the Ames tunnel, and one later to fly on or before the anniversary in December 2003. We have finished the airplane to be tested in the wind tunnel, of course. Later this year we will begin building the airplane to fly.

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!).

Archived QuestChats with Fred Culick



 
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