If Wilbur and Orville Wright had to find someone to build one of their airplanes today, they could hardly have done better than Ken Hyde. He is much like them--a perfectionist, reserved and proprietary.
The Wrights took great pains to make sure nobody could copy the planes they built, but now along comes Hyde, with the same penchant for secrecy, almost a century later doing just that.
Nonetheless, the brothers would surely be pleased that a precise reproduction of their 1911 Wright B Flyer is scheduled to arrive today, under wraps, at the College Park Aviation Museum, at the tiny airport where three of the original Wright craft arrived in 1911 and 1912.
The reproduction--do not call it a replica--which will not fly, is the culmination of years of painstaking research and work at Hyde's Warrenton workshop, where he has built a reputation as the nation's premier restorer and builder of "antique" aircraft. A retired commercial airline pilot, he has already built one Wright B, also motorless, on display at Fort Rucker, Ala., and he is building a third, which he intends to fly this winter.
"It is an obsession," Hyde says. "I mean we're trying to figure out how they did this. . . . Everyone wants to modernize it for us, make it like a new design. We're not interested."
In the years after Orville Wright's historic 12-second flight Dec. 17, 1903, the brothers built several more planes, including the Wright B--the first with landing wheels. The three delivered to College Park were used by the Army in the nation's first military aviation school there.
Now, the year-old College Park museum, which is under the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, is paying Hyde $280,000 for what promises to be the centerpiece of its collection.
The Wrights' secrecy has made Hyde's work all the more challenging, as he strives for a level of authenticity the Wrights would have admired. The brothers were so worried about losing the rights to their invention that they left few blueprints and never even patented their first mechanically powered aircraft for fear their work would be stolen.
To "remanufacture" the Wright B, Hyde, 60, has spent years analyzing the design and reviewing private papers. "I was astonished at the skills he had managed to assemble and at the work they were doing," said Wilkinson "Wick" Wright, a grandnephew of the inventors who has visited Hyde's shop, a small hangar on 25 acres where Hyde also lives.
Hyde, who also hopes to build a reproduction of the first Wright plane in time for the centennial of flight, scoured the country for original parts to use as prototypes.
He works backward from vintage photographs scanned into a computer and enlarged to enhance the fine details, from which identical parts will be meticulously reproduced by skilled workers he has found by word of mouth. He has even hired a master violin maker in Annapolis to carve his propellers.
Assembled at Hyde's workshop, the College Park-bound plane will be transported in pieces inside a large closed truck and be put back together at the museum.
The reproduction will arrive with an arguably minor deviation: The fabric covering the wings, unlike the original, won't be rubberized, but not because Hyde didn't want it just so.
"It took [Hyde] years and years to locate a manufacturer who would reproduce that kind of [rubberized] fabric," but it won't last, said museum director Cathy Allen. "For a motorless plane that will never fly, it's not needed."
But whenever possible, authenticity prevails. Hyde examined the Wright B motor displayed at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. He patterned propellers from an original hanging in his shop. He's even obtained copies of the Wrights' check stubs and factory inventory.
Hyde is no Luddite. He uses computers to gauge the effects of winds and wing warp and to measure stress, and the plane he plans to fly will undergo wind-tunnel testing.
The Hyde aircraft factory is a small hangar that smells like model airplane glue. "My therapy room," he calls it. He and his wife, Beverly, live next door. The property also includes a short grass runway.
Beverly Hyde handles the fabric covering the wings, and a niece helps with the sewing. There are also three full-time shop workers and a smattering of volunteers.
The son of a railroad telegrapher, Hyde started as an apprentice mechanic at the Manassas Airport, in time flew Constellations for NASA in preparation for the early spaceflights and spent 33 years as a pilot for American Airlines before retiring last year. Now he's into early flight.
The B was the Wrights' first production aircraft. Eighty to 100 B's are believed to have been built before Wilbur's death in 1912 led to Orville's selling the company two years later.
Only two are known to have survived, the one at the Franklin Institute, the other, greatly modified, at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, where another "look-alike" B was privately built in the 1970s with many more modifications.
The rush to build versions of the first Wright plane is also on, with the centennial deadline of Dec. 17, 2003, looming closer. One California group recently wind-tunnel tested what its builders call a "precise replica" of the 1903 Flyer with "some enhancements."
That does not impress the remanufacturers of the Wright B.
Said Rick Young, of Richmond, who with Hyde has formed the Discovery of Flight Foundation: "There's a lot of sort of Disney to a lot of our history today. If your work is going to have value, it has to be authentic."
CAPTION: In 1911, a well-dressed group gathers around a Wright B Flyer after its arrival in College Park. Three of the original Wright craft flew there in 1911 and 1912.
CAPTION: This Wright B reproduction, by Ken Hyde of Warrenton, is on display at Fort Rucker, Ala. Another is to arrive at the College Park Aviation Museum today.