They are fairly confident it is going to fly, but they won't know for sure until 10:35 a.m., Dec. 17, 2003 - 100 years to the minute after the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
"It" is a precise reproduction of the primitive airplane that Orville Wright took on the world's first powered and controlled flight a century ago. If it didn't have to be so precise, it could have a blue oval on it.
Ford Motor Co. has been the lead sponsor of the three-year, $6 million effort to re-enact the feat of Wilbur and Orville Wright. The Experimental Aircraft Association of Oshkosh, Wis., organized the effort. Its official title is EAA's Countdown to Kitty Hawk, Presented by Ford Motor Co.
Reasons for the automaker's involvement: Henry Ford was well-acquainted with the two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, who were the first to fly. Ford himself was an aviation pioneer. And the flight centennial coincides with the 100th anniversary of Ford Motor Co.
Heading for Dearborn
The reproduction was scheduled to be on display in a traveling 24,000-square-foot pavilion at Ford's main centennial celebration June 13-16 in Dearborn, Mich. After the flight re-enactment in December, the plane is to be displayed permanently at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
Reproducing the Wrights' flyer was more of a challenge than it might seem, and Ford contributed technical expertise as well as funding.
"Our goal (was) to recreate what they did by reverse engineering," says Ken Hyde, who oversaw the work.
The Wrights, who did not have formal training, figured out how to fly by building a series of kites, gliders and, finally, powered aircraft, but many of their records were lost or destroyed - some intentionally to guard against theft by rivals.
Ford laboratories analyzed metal parts, paint and deposits from Wright artifacts to determine materials needed for the reproduction, the company says. Ford and other sponsors assembled an extensive, searchable database of historical records for the builders of the reproduction to use.
The Countdown to Kitty Hawk organization says the reproduction is accurate down to the thread count in the muslin fabric on the wings.
The Experimental Aircraft Association contracted with a group called the Wright Experience of Warrenton, Va., to build the reproduction. Hyde is its executive director. He is a retired airline pilot and veteran restorer of antique aircraft.
Better than original?
Hyde and his team completed the reproduction early this year. It has been tested in a wind tunnel at Old Dominion University in Virginia but will be flown for the first time at 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 17, the same time Orville Wright took off for his 12-second flight.
The wind tunnel test results were good, says Randal Dietrich, executive director of the countdown organization.
Ford and the organization emphasize that the plane is a reproduction - that is, more precise than a replica. In fact, they say the reproduction is probably more like the plane the Wrights flew than the one on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
Orville Wright repaired the original with some different materials years after the first flights. The original had been smashed by a wind gust after its fourth flight on Dec. 17, 1903.