The Wright Glider Stuff

By Jim Cunningham, EAA 594611

The would-be pilot stood atop the sand dune hill at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, wondering if the craft he was about to fly would work as promised. The wind picked up, and his companions holding the wings of the glider signaled it was time to launch. They began running down the hill, and the muslin-covered wings bit into the air — flight!

The year was not 1902, and the pilot was not one of the Wright brothers. The year was 2019, and the pilot was … me.

The Wright 1902 glider was the final developmental aircraft in the brothers’ quest to attain powered flight. It featured a new three-axis aerodynamic control system that solved problems with skidding and slipping in turns and enabled the pilot to counter adverse yaw. Every airplane built since has the Wright 1902 glider in its DNA. The brothers made more than 1,200 flights in it in 1902 and 1903, paving the way for the Flyer that would engrave their names in the history books. Sadly, the 1902 glider was abandoned at Kitty Hawk as unwanted surplus after its mission was completed, and all that remains of it today is a small piece of wingtip.

As the centennial of the Wrights’ first powered flight approached in 2003, various organizations made plans to celebrate the event and educate the public about the Wright brothers and the birth of the airplane. Several groups made plans to build replicas and reproductions of early Wright aircraft. Most of these were only for static display, but a few were built as airworthy examples intended for flight. EAA’s Countdown to Kitty Hawk was the grandest of all these plans, culminating with an attempt to fly a reproduction of the Flyer on December 17, 2003 (unfortunately, weather prevented it from getting airborne).

The pilots for that program trained much like the Wrights did — by making flights in a reproduction of the Wright 1902 glider. The 1903 Flyer and 1902 glider reproduction aircraft were both built by Ken Hyde and his team at The Wright Experience of Warrenton, Virginia, for the Discovery of Flight Foundation. The glider’s airframe is spruce, like the original, and the fabric used is muslin, also like the original. One concession was made for safety reasons — the wire used is modern and not single-strand like that used in 1902.

When the time came to train the pilots for the centennial event at Kitty Hawk, the glider was modified to handle more like the 1903 Flyer by changing its CG with ballast as well as a new canard modeled off the one used on the Flyer. Wheels were also added for practicality. Once the celebration concluded at the end of 2003, the Flyer reproduction was put on display in The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The 1902 glider was returned to Virginia and stored.

Enter Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School. Located at Jockey’s Ridge State Park just a few miles from Kill Devil Hill where the Wrights made aviation history, the school opened in 1974 and has trained over 400,000 students. Paul Glenshaw, who was involved with the centennial events as director of the Discovery of Flight Foundation, took some hang gliding lessons at the school after the anniversary and suggested that the Wright 1902 glider would make a great addition to the institution’s fleet. A deal was struck, and in 2011 the aircraft, now back in its original configuration, became available to the public for flights. No prior flight training of any kind is required. By adding three tethers to the glider — one on the front and one on each wingtip — instructors help the pilot control the aircraft where necessary.

I registered for the program, and August found my Arrow and I crossing the Appalachians from Illinois bound for Kitty Hawk. As with any aircraft, weather governs all operations of the glider, and conditions have to be just right to fly, with wind between 18 and 25 mph. The day before my scheduled flight, instructor Billy Vaughn called to report that early afternoon the next day would be ideal for flying. At 9 a.m. the following morning, Billy called again. The weather was changing and could I fly around 10? Being a pilot and understanding the realities of weather, I said I was ready at any time and would head over immediately. A man about my age looked up as I walked in to the school building, noted my Vintage Aircraft Association volunteer hat and EAA “plane geek” shirt, smiled, and said, “You must be Jim.”

“What gave it away?” I asked. Billy walked me through the inevitable insurance forms and introduced me to the instructors and staff I’d be working with. Wolf, Luke, and Willy all looked like they stepped out of central casting for surfers at Malibu, and somehow found ways to insert the phrases “Sweet!” “All right!” and “Right on!” into every other sentence. I’ve never met a more dedicated or enthusiastic group in my life. They obviously lived and breathed all things hang gliding. Their energy was contagious, and I got swept up in their exuberance and couldn’t wait to get out on the sand and do some flying.

As when getting checked out on any new aircraft, we started with ground training. Billy and I agreed to bypass the basic history of the glider, since I was already familiar with it. We stepped into the rather cramped storage area, and there it was — a re-creation of the first controllable airplane. Its 32-foot wingspan is identical to my Piper Arrow, but this one only weighs about 120 pounds, not 2,500. It was immediately obvious that this was a working airplane and not a pristine museum display piece — parts of the fabric were stained by many landings in the sand, and there were signs of minor repairs scattered about the craft (yet another way it’s like the original).

The Wright 1902 glider, like the 1903 Flyer that followed, is flown from the prone position. The pilot has two controls: a hip cradle and a rotatable hand piece to hold onto in flight. The aileron was not invented by the Wrights; instead this ship’s roll is controlled by warping its wings in birdlike fashion. This requires much of the wing structure to flex on command via a complicated series of wires, pulleys, etc. connected to the hip cradle. Billy advised me not to be shy about control inputs for roll and to slide the cradle to full deflection immediately, and then take out what wasn’t needed. There is no separate rudder control; the hip cradle control is interconnected and deflects the rudder as needed.

Pitch, meanwhile, is controlled by rotating a piece of wood about the size of a standard 1-by-2-inch board. Twist forward and the canard — mounted in view in front of the pilot — pitches the glider down, while twisting back results in pitching the craft up. I had noticed in videos of this and other replicas that the canard flutters in flight and asked Billy why pilots use control inputs that trigger the oscillations, which look counterproductive at best. He replied that the canard flutter is inherent to the design and is not pilot induced. In short, it simply does that. The key to flying the glider, I’m told, is to look forward out over the canard, into the distance. Looking at the ground directly ahead or around you will result in less than optimal performance and handling. This is familiar territory — it’s the same technique every pilot learns to land an airplane.

The storage hangar turns out to be a considerable distance from the dune we will fly from. The crew guides the glider on a wheeled cart along a path up and down over sand dunes; scattered trees require careful turns to avoid having branches damage the wing fabric. It’s already getting hot out, and I’m glad that my new friends who are younger than me are doing the pushing and pulling. Even they are a little winded when we reach the top of the large hill we are going to operate from. We attach the canard and rudder along with their control cables. One person is always holding onto the aircraft; the crew refers to this as the “BBC rule.” When I ask how the rule got its name, everyone looks a little uncomfortable and I’m informed that once upon a time the BBC was filming a segment about the airplane and wanted static shots of it sitting on the sand dune. Having light wing loading, it doesn’t take much wind to create enough lift to get it airborne, and a good gust did exactly that. Now the glider is always held in place by hand.

Billy gives me a helmet and safety harness, equipment the Wrights didn’t have. A safety line attached to the vest will keep me from darting forward into the canard if I land with too much horizontal speed. That’s an unlikely prospect, but it’s nevertheless a wise precaution.

There are several conventional hang gliders on the dune, along with instructors, students, and their companions. The Wright 1902 glider is quite different from anything else around it and immediately attracts attention. Even though people don’t know exactly what it is, they recognize its lineage to the Wright Flyer painted on signs all over Kitty Hawk. I take over talking to onlookers so that the crew can finish assembly and test the controls without interruption.

With assembly complete, it’s time for a test flight. An experienced instructor climbs aboard and the others with safety tethers on the wings and nose begin running down the dune. I’ve watched video of this and other 1902 glider reproductions flying here, but to actually see this one rise majestically into the air and fly by, the crew running and holding onto tethers on the wings and nose, is breathtaking. The glider gracefully alights at the bottom of the dune, and the crew carries the machine back uphill. As they pass, it sinks in — I’m up next.

Mounting the glider reminds me of boarding a floatplane — it’s a process that involves contorting around a number of support wires and struts. I lay down and shift to position myself properly on the spar across my belt line and center myself in the steering cradle. Hands go on the pitch control. One of the guys attaches my safety line. It’s uncomfortable, to put it mildly, but comfort isn’t the objective here. Besides, it’ll be a short flight. The crew on the wings and nose lift the ship up. I help by lifting the center while getting into the “flamingo stance” for launch — one foot on the ground and the other leg straight back with my foot hooked over the rear spar. The breeze jostles the craft while I try to keep my balance (I guess I’d make a lousy flamingo).

While we wait for the proper wind, I have a moment to take everything in. The air is crystal clear. The dune slopes downward in front of me, the wind-sculpted sand broken by brush at the bottom. A half-mile or so beyond is the blue of the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly the crew members perk up. “This is starting to feel good,” Wolf says, on the nose tether. My untrained senses can’t feel the change in the wind, but obviously they can. After a final check to make sure we’re all ready, we start moving.

“Hop! Hop! Hop!” Wolf calls to me, reminding me of my training. “Put your leg up!” My concern that I wouldn’t be able to find the spar with my foot turns out to be unfounded, and I’m “gear up” in no time. I’m back to being a student pilot again — my senses are overloaded with lots of unfamiliar information, and my brain doesn’t know what to do with it. This is not flying as I know it. “Now relax!” Wolf calls to me from the front and now below me as the aircraft lifts off.

The ship is stable, but it’s so light that it feels every puff of change in wind speed and direction, vertically as well as horizontally. The glider begins oscillating in pitch after a few seconds, and in the classic form of someone flying an unfamiliar airplane, I add to the problem by overcontrolling, rotating the canard control to full deflection both up and down. Because the canard, which serves as the elevator, flaps around so much on its own, it’s difficult for me to get an idea of what part of the deflection is me and what isn’t.

Barely a dozen seconds after launch, it’s time to land. “Flare!” the crew calls, and I rotate the canard control all the way back. The ship doesn’t so much flare as it sinks flat, slowly, before plopping onto the sand. It’s not smooth, but it’s not much of a jolt, either. The sand absorbs the vertical energy well, but I can’t imagine trying to put it down on regular dirt, let alone pavement. Squirm out, unhook, and trudge back up the dune analyzing the flight as the rest of the crew (bless them) haul the glider up the hot sand. The wind was from straight ahead, and with the crew on the wing tethers, I didn’t really have to think about roll much. Pitch is another matter — now that I have some idea of how the plane flies, I can better manage the pitch inputs and do better on the next flight … I hope.

Duck and twist around the wires and struts. Safety line, check. Squirm around to get positioned. Crane neck upward (and be grateful that airplanes eventually went with upright seats that we use today). Stand up with the crew and lift the glider. One leg up and back; hook foot on rear spar. Wait for the wind. Go! As I put my other leg off on takeoff I realize that given the craft’s small size and light weight that doing so actually creates a noticeable CG change. I make a conscious effort to go easier on the pitch inputs this time. “Speed! Speed!” Wolf calls, presumably to the guys on the wing tethers. I don’t know that there’s anything I can do about it. After all, I don’t have an engine and we’re only a few feet off the sand where I can’t trade altitude for airspeed. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” he calls a couple of seconds later after things have improved. Someone on one of the wing tethers lets out a whoop shortly thereafter. I’m still oscillating the aircraft in pitch, but it’s less drastic than before. “Flare!” comes the call, and I plop the machine onto the sand. “Nice, man!” Wolf calls out. I’m betting he says that to everyone who doesn’t break the thing, I think as I extract myself from it. Luke and Willy applaud.

Up the dune we go again. Reset, reattach, raise the airplane, and wait for the wind. One of the guys has music playing on his phone, all ’80s. Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” swirls through the air as I stand on one leg again. “Just out of curiosity,” I call to the crew, “Were any of you even born when this song came out?” They all shake their heads. I feel old — I was in college.

“This feels good,” Wolf says as the breeze picks up, and we all position for launch. “Go!” he calls, and we’re off again. The third flight is better yet. Armed with a whopping minute’s worth of flight time on the ship now, I’m getting a feel for what is normal pitching of the glider in the wind and what I need to give control inputs to correct. Learning to control the Wright 1902 glider in pitch is reminiscent of learning to fly a training airplane in a steep turn — you have to learn to recognize the need for control input early on to avoid pitch and altitude excursions. The flight is smoother, and I’m not skimming the ground on touchdown this time. The ship plops into the sand at the bottom of the dune, and the crew hauls it up yet again.

I still have no feel for the wind at launch; what the crew all senses still evades me. We get underway, and I’m airborne again, but this time I’m not on overload and can begin to concentrate on what is going on rather than just react. I mentally filter pitch changes and apply the correct amount of canard input at the right moment. “Awesome, Jim!” I hear Wolf confirm my improved flying skills. I’m up a little higher on this flight, and the right wing drops just slightly as the ship flutters onto the sand; there’s no time to correct, and probably not enough speed and airflow to reverse it even if I tried. No matter; the ship and I are fine and go back up the dune once more.

I’m actually able to help the crew get a running start on this final launch before folding my legs back onto the rear spar. I finally have a feel for control inputs and know what the sight picture should be, and the glider climbs to a whopping 8-10 feet. The space we have to fly in isn’t any greater than it was before, though, and in no time I have to come down. Because I’m higher, the landing is inevitably more of a drop and jolt than the other four were. Unknown to me until then I let my right leg dangle a bit on this flight, and my knee gets scraped in the sand on touchdown. While annoying, it makes life a little more interesting for the next couple of weeks when people ask, “How did you do that?” Not many people can respond with, “Landing a reproduction of the Wright brothers’ 1902 glider at Kitty Hawk.”

I wriggle out of the glider for the last time and am happy to shed my helmet and harness in the 90-plus degree heat. One of the crew rides the wheeled cart for the glider down the dune as if riding a wave on a surfboard. We unfasten and disconnect the ship’s canard and rudder for transport. The airplane is lifted back onto the cart, the rudder is fastened flat onto the center section, and yours truly is given the job of carrying the canard and its connecting struts. As we meander the path back to the school buildings, I get a couple of lessons of just how much lift is generated by the glider’s canard in the gusts, but keep control.

During the walk, the crew of Wolf, Luke, and Willy praise my flying skills, saying I’m one of the better Wright 1902 glider pilots they’ve seen. Wolf has been telling me that all along, and I tell the other two I’m sure he says that to all their customers. “Naw, man,” Luke says. “Wolf’s honest. If you suck, he’ll tell you.” On the other hand, many or most of their customers aren’t already pilots. With all the experience I have, I’d better be able to do a decent job. I’m officially the 213th person ever to fly a Wright 1902 glider.

Back in the office, Billy Vaughn and I talk shop as I cool off. He is also the historian of the Rogallo Foundation. NASA engineer Francis Rogallo invented the wing now named after him, and the design became the basis for hang gliders and modern parachutes. Billy is currently working on Rogallo’s biography after spending months going through the engineer’s collection of papers at a local archive, processing the material as he went. Having worked in an archive and written a couple of biographies I understand the challenges involved. He and others are also working to establish a museum on Rogallo and his designs on the school site.

The next day I make a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial a couple of miles away from where I flew the glider. I’ve been there before, even landed my Arrow on the site’s runway, but this visit is different — there’s a personal connection now. I walk to the top of Kill Devil Hill and look down. The museum and the flying site that mark the birth of powered flight are readily visible in the distance, but my thoughts are of what it must have been like to fly the glider here. Kill Devil Hill is approximately 100 feet high, taller and steeper than the hill I flew from at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. The Wrights flew the 1902 glider more than 1,200 times from here; their longest flight was a minute and 12 seconds. What must that have been like with no instructor to teach or guide them, no tethers to keep the ship safe and under control, and no experience?

EAA members prefer our aviation history to be living history. We’d rather see historic and vintage aircraft in the sky where they belong when possible, or better yet, fly them ourselves. Fortunately for us, Kitty Hawk Kites makes the Wright 1902 glider replica available for anyone to fly; one need not even be a pilot or have any training to fly this remarkable machine. For more information or to book your own adventure, go to www.KittyHawk.com/adventures/1902-wright-glider-experience or call 1-877-FLY-THIS.

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