Orville and Wilbur Wright made no detailed drawings of it. Damage caused by a mischievous wind that day has forever obscured its true design. And though the original Flyer is enshrined at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, it is only 60 percent to 70 percent authentic.
When antique plane restorer Ken Hyde set out in 1992 to reproduce the wood-and-cloth plane to the smallest detail, it was - as one project volunteer put it - "like trying to build a dinosaur from scratch."
Today Hyde's resurrected Flyer will be in the spotlight as thousands gather on the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk to see if it can live up to its predecessor in a 100-years-to-the-minute re-enactment of the Wrights' famous flight.
To replicate the plane, Hyde and two dozen assistants at the Wright Experience, Hyde's plane-restoration shop in Warrenton, Va., combed through the threads of history with the eyes of detectives, consulting about 250,000 pages of Wright documents, poring over hundreds of photographs, and examining surviving airplane parts as well as Flyer blueprints drawn after its restoration.
Their investigation uncovered long-obscured details about the plane and has given birth to the most authentic reproduction ever built. (The 2003 Flyer is as notoriously unstable as the original. Last month, a successful test flight was followed by a crash five days later, although the damage was quickly repaired.)
At 10:35 a.m. today, weather permitting, Kevin Kochersberger, an engineering professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and one of two pilots who trained more than a year for this flight, will lay prone in the cradle of the 605-pound plane. He will then propel it along a wooden launching rail in an attempt to replicate the world's first powered flight: the 120-foot, 12-second jaunt of Orville Wright on Dec. 17, 1903. Terry Queijo, an American Airlines pilot from Maryland's Eastern Shore, will portray Wilbur Wright and serve as the backup pilot. A second flight is planned for later in the day.
The flights will culminate a six-day celebration in honor of the brothers from Ohio who solved the riddle of human flight and forever shrank the world.
There's no guarantee of success, but what Hyde will say with certainty is this: If Wilbur and Orville Wright were alive today, they might mistake his replica for the one flown that December morning.
"There's no doubt that we have gotten as close to the original Wright airplane as we possibly can," says Hyde, whose workshop was commissioned by the Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association to duplicate the airplane with about $1.2 million from sponsors.
After the first flight by Orville, the brothers alternated as pilots for three more attempts that day with Wilbur flying 852 feet in 59 seconds on the fourth flight. It would be the machine's last.
As the bicycle mechanics stood on the secluded sands discussing the long flight, a gust of wind hurled the double-winged craft into a crackling somersault. The brothers crated the wrecked plane and shipped it to Dayton, where it was stored for 13 years. It spent two weeks under water and caked in mud when a flood struck in 1913.
Orville reassembled the flying machine for an exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1916, four years after Wilbur's death. He fixed the Kitty Hawk damage, but it's unclear how true the repairs were to the 1903 design.
In his final work on the plane, in 1928, he refurbished the Flyer and replaced its original fabric with new material of the same type. The icon of the air age was formally installed at the Smithsonian Institution in 1948 - a few months after Orville's death.
"The Flyer, the way it sits today, is the way Orville wanted us to see it," says Wright Experience researcher and mechanic Bill Hadden, 42. "That's sort of putting a happy face to it."
In 1992, Hyde, a broom-thin man who speaks in measured tones, became intrigued by the Wrights' work when his team of craftsmen, mechanics and engineers, then called Virginia Aviation, was commissioned to build a 1911 Wright Model B, the first mass-produced military airplane. The award-winning restorer thought the project would be as simple as picking up the blueprints from the Smithsonian and turning out a completed Model B copy 18 months later. But none existed.
His team spent six months at the Library of Congress researching the project before cutting the first piece of wood.
From the brothers' letters, the Wrights' journey of discovery from 1899 to 1911 emerged. Inspired, Hyde changed the name of his outfit to the Wright Experience and set out to duplicate the process leading to what many consider the most revolutionary technology of the 20th century: the airplane.
But the authentic details the retired airline pilot needed for his mission required nothing short of detective work.
The Wrights abandoned their early gliders at Kitty Hawk and made no detailed renderings of the Flyer, which they repeatedly modified and saw as a research tool, not a final product.
Specifics of the 1903 Flyer design are also elusive because the Wrights were competing in the early 1900s in a race for flight, and as they inched closer to success, they increasingly worked in secret to keep imitators from stealing their ideas.
"They were the first businessmen who really had to put up with industrial spying," says Hyde, 64, whose shop is re-creating the Wrights' 12-year period of evolutionary design to document the science behind their breakthroughs.
The inventors were the first to reason that a propeller is a rotating wing that generates lift horizontally. As Hyde's team delved into the Wrights' work, it learned that the brothers painted their hand-carved spruce propellers with silver paint to obscure their unique shape from spies with cameras.
Hyde and his assistants had to glean details about the brothers' work from papers culled from the National Archives, Library of Congress, Wright State University and the Wright family, poring over everything from receipts to longhand trigonometry notes. From photographs, they extracted nuances using magnification techniques. They also examined surviving plane parts and Flyer blueprints drawn after its renovation.
As they did so, they followed in the shadow of the brothers' experiments.
First, Hyde's team built a duplicate of the 1899 kite that confirmed the brothers' "wing-warping" system of control, the precursor to ailerons used on modern planes that allow an aircraft to bank left and right.
Then the team constructed the 1900 and 1901 gliders, both kite descendants, that the brothers used to test lift-producing wing shapes. Last year, it produced a replica of the 1902 Wright glider, the world's first fully controllable aircraft.
The team tested many of the reproductions in Hampton, Va., inside a cavernous wind tunnel operated by Old Dominion University, whose professors helped with testing and analysis.
"The only way to understand how the Wrights achieved what they did is to do what they did," says Wright historian Tom D. Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Air and Space Museum. "God and the devil are in those details. They almost certainly make the difference between success and failure with an airplane that marginal."
When it came to building the Flyer - from the eyebrow curve of its 76 ash wing ribs to the upholstery of its hip cradle - the propellers, fabric and homemade engine proved the most challenging to duplicate.
To reproduce the propellers in the smallest detail possible, Hyde turned to Direct Dimensions Inc., an Owings Mills company specializing in three-dimensional measurement.
Using a laser, the curves of the propellers were scanned into a computer to create a digital model that allowed technicians to mold a plastic template.
With the template as a guide, antique tools expert Larry Parks glued two lengths of spruce and carved the 8 1/2 -foot, 6-pound propellers using period tools.
The aerospace engineer, who volunteers at Hyde's shop, figured out what tools the Wrights used by studying their notes and examining marks on the original propellers. Parks was so precise, he simulated the tool-mark textures on his copies.
"Their propellers are nearly as efficient as modern propellers," says Parks, 59, who estimates that he spent 130 hours carving the first propeller. "It just goes to show how remarkable the Wright propellers were."
For the cloth-covered limbs, Hyde had the plane's fabric replicated down to the exact weave and thread count based on a piece of muslin that is a family heirloom of Marianne Miller Hudec, a great-niece of the Wright brothers. It took more than a year to reproduce the fabric, a tightly woven cotton cloth used for ladies undergarments that was last manufactured in the 1920s.
The researchers had two sets of engine drawings for the 12-horsepower, four-cylinder contraption. So when it came time to reproduce it, things appeared as if they might become a tad less tedious.
"Both sets of drawings will not make an engine that you can put together," says Steve Hay, 61, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of trumpet parts who was hired with his brother Jim to duplicate the engine. "In some cases, particular dimensions don't add up. You have to go through and make sure that part A can fit into cavity B."
Fortunately, the Hay brothers had helped their father make a model of the engine for the 75th anniversary of flight. Over the course of 1,400 hours, they relied on that knowledge to machine and hand-fit an array of valves and sprockets. And that was only after corporate sponsor Alcoa resurrected out-of-date methods to cast the engine's aluminum crankcase.
Hyde's team discovered that the engine produced more horsepower than widely documented.
The team uncovered other differences between the Flyer as it flew in 1903 and the Flyer enshrined at the Smithsonian.
Through a comparison of photographs, researcher Hadden found that the Wrights installed an extra pair of bracing wires from the wings to the landing skids after Wilbur damaged the plane during the first flight attempt on Dec. 14, 1903.
"It's not in the blueprints, it's not in the Smithsonian aircraft, it's nowhere," says master woodworker Scott Rawlings. But those deceptively thin wires make the wooden skids stronger, so the Wright Experience included them.
Hyde's researchers also discovered that the control stick used to move the front rudder was lengthened about 4 inches between Dec. 14 and Dec. 17. The longer stick, which gives the pilot 65 percent more leverage, is not outlined in the Wright documents.
"In my view the work you are doing would have come first in Uncle Orv's eyes," Hudec, the Wrights' great-niece, wrote in a letter to Hyde. "No other organization besides yours has devoted itself to validating the science developed by the Wrights. And that is the thing that mattered most of all to them."
Now if they can just get it to fly.
Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.