One Hundred Years of Altitude
Rick Youngrestaurateur, technophile, obsessed basement hobbyistis about to pilot the first perfect replica of the 1903 Wright flyer, the rickety, wood-and-fabric biplane that kick started aviation history. At least four other teams are poised to launch flyers of their own, but Young is rushing to make it into the record books firstor become th
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“CHECK THIS OUT,” says Rick Young, popping a videotape into one of three VCRs sitting on a 72-inch TV. We’re standing in his cluttered basement in Richmond, Virginia, facing an electronics array worthy of a Stereophile centerfold: the television, the VCRs, a six-foot-high wall of speakers, a satellite receiver, three tape decks, and two CD players. Young, an ebullient, white-haired 52-year-old, thrusts a cell phone into the hands of his lanky mechanic and carpenter, Grover Cleveland Taylor, 34, and stashes a second phone in his shirt pocket. He grabs one of seven remotes and punches Play.
“OK, kids!” Young bellows. “Don’t do this at home!”
Orchestral music booms from the speakers. Young appears on the giant screen, lying belly down in a replica of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s 1902 glider—one of several experimental craft the Wrights developed en route to their historic 12-second, 120-foot first flight of a motorized airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. Young gracefully soars off the giant dunes of Jockey’s Ridge, a hang-gliding hot spot on the windswept shores of the Outer Banks, about four miles south of Kitty Hawk. He’s working the elevator—the glider’s control mechanism—wafting slowly over invisible air currents on a flimsy craft composed mainly of white linen, thin steel wire, and spindly ash spars.
“Watch. I’ll push the nose down, dive, then flair,” says Young. The glider dips, swoops low, noses up slightly, then settles gently onto the sand after its 20-second dance. The flight appears effortless. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?”
It is. Especially since, aside from the Wright brothers, Young is the only person ever to have successfully flown such a plane.
In fact, Young, a risk-taking gadabout who amassed a small fortune in the restaurant business, is the only person to have built and flown replicas of all three of the Wrights’ gliders, which they constructed between 1900 and 1903 as they worked toward their motorized plane. These projects cost Young roughly half a million dollars and countless hours, but they’re just part of a larger quest that has consumed him for 30 years. Fascinated by the Wrights’ creative and mechanical genius, Young is obsessed with understanding not only what they did, but how. This summer, he intends to take a precise replica of the motorized 1903 Wright Flyer into the air, re-creating for the first time in a hundred years the most famous flight in aviation history.
As Young knows, the particulars of the ’03 Flyer are murky. When the original was ruined in a gust of wind after its fourth outing, the Wrights disassembled it and stuffed it into a crate. Orville later reassembled, and slightly modified, the ’03 twice before delivering it to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 1948. (The aircraft now hangs in the Air and Space Museum.) But since the Wrights made no blueprints, historians don’t know, among other things, exactly how the original wing ribs were built, or how much metal was used in the tail fittings. What is clear to modern experts is that the ’03 was exceptionally unstable and dangerous, and that flying it at all required extraordinary courage and finesse. “The Wrights are lucky they never killed themselves,” says Young.
With the 100th anniversary of the first flight fast approaching, the media have been hot after Young—as well as four other teams around the United States that are working to launch ’03 replicas. But Young’s obsession with authenticity far surpasses the competition’s—to some, it even borders on the manic. He has drawn his own schematics by scrutinizing high-resolution computer scans of glass-plate photographs the Wrights took of their craft, allowing him to re-create details with unprecedented accuracy. “Some nights,” Young says, “I lay awake in bed wondering if the Wrights would approve of how I spent my day.”
The cell phone in Young’s pocket chirps. It’s a TV producer, trying to line up an interview. After a quick conversation, Young hangs up and exhales. Outwardly, he’s all go-go-go, but he still has a lot of work to do, and the pressure is starting to get to him. He has yet to build the plane’s horizontal and vertical stabilizers, the prop, the entire undercarriage. The engine is also behind schedule; it’s being assembled by German engineer Udo Joerges, 47, a Wright enthusiast who lives in Berlin. Joerges has had the flu, but he expects to be finished by summer. Which might be too late—the other teams are scurrying as well.
Young looks pensively at Taylor. Their quirky relationship oscillates between paternal and fraternal, part father-son, part Wright brothers. Taylor left home at 16 and trained as an auto mechanic while living on his own during high school. He got a job doing repair work at one of Young’s restaurants in 1989 and has been his steadfast—and only—full-time assistant ever since. Taylor scratches his goatee, then peers back at his boss.
“Grover, we’ve got some decisions to make,” Young finally says. “I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a black hole.”
AN EASY WAY TO ANNOY RICK YOUNG is to ask the question that adventurers dread: Um, why exactly are you doing this? The dangers involved are considerable. Though Young has sustained only minor cuts and bruises while flying replica Wright gliders, the ’03 Flyer is a riskier proposition. The added weight and thrust of the 200-pound motor means that going even 30 feet off the ground could be deadly in such a wobbly and unfamiliar contraption.
I raise this at dinner one night. Young, Taylor, and I are sitting in one of Young’s restaurants, the Half Way House, a 240-year-old former stagecoach stop that now caters to Richmond businessmen. Taylor is eating a hamburger, while Young nibbles on a tiny salad, part of a three-month crash diet intended to help him shed 40 pounds on his way to Wilbur’s flying weight of 150.
“If that’s the question, then let’s argue the question,” Young says, talking about the Wrights with a present-tense immediacy. “In a speech to the Western Society of Engineers, Wilbur says there are two ways of learning to ride a horse. One is to sit on the fence and watch, and the other is to mount the beast!
“You have to take risks to make progress,” Young declares. “Everyone will crash, but the difference is, why is it being done? The whole idea is to understand the process, to stumble along and say, ‘Why did the Wright brothers do this?’ Then you do it and understand, and that’s incredibly satisfying.”
The Wrights’ derring-do is a big part of what drives Young. The brothers were little-known bicycle mechanics in their late twenties and early thirties when they beat some of the finest engineering minds on the planet in the race to fly first. By the time they began building planes at the turn of the century, a host of inventors had been launching themselves skyward for decades—and flopping dramatically in everything from box kites to steam-powered airplanes.
At least two people were killed trying to be the first to fly, while many others were injured. German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal crashed and died in 1896 in the hills an hour outside Berlin. In 1898, Francis Pierpont Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian and America’s leading aviation scientist, received a $50,000 contract from the U.S. Army to launch a gasoline-powered plane from a catapult affixed to the roof of a houseboat on the Potomac River. His machine, carrying his assistant Charles Manly, crashed twice, almost killing Manly.
Most engineers at the time believed the secret of powered flight was to create an aerodynamically stable aircraft—with the right design, they assumed, you could simply drive off into the clouds. But flight is rarely stable. You need to independently control and balance the three variables of pitch (nose up or down), yaw (nose left or right), and roll (wings tilting to either side). The Wrights understood this in the same way they understood bicycles, which require learned, counterintuitive balance. Beginning in 1900, Orville and Wilbur built three gliders with increasingly sophisticated means of three-axis control. During the next three years, amid the breezy, open dunes of the Outer Banks, the brothers taught themselves the delicate art of flying, with themselves as test pilots.
In the summer of 1902 alone, the Wrights personally made 600 flights, managing to stay airborne for about 30 seconds at a time, often in howling winds of nearly 30 miles per hour. During a few short months back home in Dayton, Ohio, they built a lightweight, four-cylinder engine and returned to the Outer Banks in late 1903 with the plane that changed everything. By the time anyone else managed to stay aloft for even 60 seconds, the Wrights were cruising for a half-hour at a time. And that was only the beginning. In the years that followed, Orville and Wilbur continued to test and fly new planes, crashing frequently but going for it again and again—like Dew Dudes in tweed jackets. The worst wreck happened in 1908, during a series of demonstration flights for the Army: Orville injured his back, and Thomas Selfridge, an Army lieutenant helping to evaluate the plane, was killed.
OF THE FOUR OTHER TEAMS working on the ’03, only one will try to create a replica with the same specs as the original. That group—The Wright Experience, based in Warrenton, Virginia—is led by Ken Hyde, 63, a retired American Airlines captain with 35,000 hours of flight time who is also Young’s former partner.
In 1992, Hyde and Young launched The Wright Experience with an eye toward re-creating the Wrights’ gliders and eventually the ’03 Flyer. The group was later hired by the 170,000-member Experimental Aircraft Association, a group of flying enthusiasts based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after the EAA won a prestigious $1.5 million contract with the National Park Service to stage the flight of an ’03 replica on the 100th anniversary. Wright Experience designers (led by Young) built the 1900 and 1901 gliders that Young flew, both of which now hang in the Virginia Museum of Aviation in Richmond. But after The Wright Experience won the ’03 job, Hyde’s shop grew, he hired a small army of craftsmen, and Young walked. His basic gripe: He didn’t like it that a project dedicated to the Wrights’ garage-workshop spirit was starting to look like a Cessna factory. “Hyde wanted all these other people to make everything,” growls Young, “but with too many people involved and too much money you lose the experiential side of things. I just left and gave him everything. He’ll never make that plane fly.”
Hyde, who hopes to be in the air by this December, prefers not to revisit old feuds. “I don’t want to comment,” he says. “I can make this plane fly. We have different goals, is all I’ll say.”
The remaining outfits are scattered around the country. The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, founded by Nick Engler, a 52-year-old craftsman and author, is an educational enterprise based in Dayton. Engler plans to have platoons of schoolchildren produce many of the parts for the Flyer, which he’ll put in the air at the annual Dayton International Airshow in July 2003. The Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a prestigious group of aerospace engineers, intends to build a working ’03 Flyer in time to fly it in July 2003. And Wright Redux, led by a Washington, D.C.Ðbased publicist and aviation buff named Tom Norton, 54, recently signed a contract with National Geographic to film a replica Flyer lifting off from the lawn of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in December 2003.
Though each of the teams claims it will be flying an accurate ’03, none is willing to court the same level of risk as Young. Hyde will use tougher glue and stronger bronze alloy for the engine’s connecting rods when putting his Flyer together. Engler’s plane will be fitted with a more reliable Suzuki engine; Norton’s, with a faster Briggs & Stratton model. And the aeronautical engineers building the AIAA Flyer are reengineering whatever suits them. “To the average person, our plane will be indistinguishable from what the Wrights flew,” says Fred Culick, 68, a professor of aeronautics and mechanical engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the head pilot for the group. “But we’re trying to build a full-scale replica that can be flown safely, so we’ll have a slightly different airfoil and a more powerful engine.”
Culick is well aware of the ’03 Flyer’s sketchy nature. He and his company first started building a nonflying version of the plane 20 years ago. After a battery of NASA wind-tunnel tests last year, Culick plugged his data into a flight simulator at the Air Force Test Pilot’s School at Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles. Only one of three Air Force test pilots could land the plane without crashing. “It was a very bad airplane,” says Culick. “Seriously unstable. Flying the thing is like trying to balance two yardsticks on the end of a finger on each hand.”
Despite these legitimate safety concerns, Young dismisses the competition. He calls Hyde a huckster who’s “in it for all the wrong reasons.” Norton’s woodworker is “terrible.” Engler he snubs with a wave of his hand. The AIAA project is just a bunch of engineers who “can’t leave the original design alone.”
No one is courting a pissing match, but it’s clear that Young’s commitment to authenticity—coupled with his vast knowledge of the Wright Brothers—has made him difficult to work with.
“The guy’s obsessed,” says Culick. “Look, Rick is the world’s expert on the Wrights,” adds Norton, “but he doesn’t do well in large organizations. He defines the playing field. And if he can’t, he won’t play.”
“LET’S GO FLY,” Young says. It’s a sunny, gusty February day, and Young, Taylor, and I pile into Young’s Lincoln Town Car for a trip to the Chesterfield airport, where he keeps his recently acquired MaxAir Drifter ultralight, an 80-horsepower small-winged aerial buggy that he’s using to hone his piloting skills. En route, Young starts gabbing about the Wrights.
“They go down there in 1900 with all these crazy ideas, and all their letters home are about birds,” he says. “The pelicans are skimming. They see ospreys surrendering airspeed for altitude. It’s all the aerodynamic forces at play. All the answers to the mysteries they’re pursuing are around them in this isolated, incredible place where they return again and again. That’s when it occurs to me that it’s their special place, where magic happens. If you take intelligence and steady perseverance and put it together with inspiration—boom!—you’ve got genius.”
Like the Wrights, Young was a self-starter. Neither Orville nor Wilbur graduated from college. Young dropped out of the Florida Institute of Technology and Lowell Tech in Massachusetts before leaving school for good in 1970 and buying into five former Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in Rhode Island. By age 20 he was married, separated, the single father of two kids, fed up with fried dough, and working in the hotel banquet business in Virginia. “I’d work my ass off, save some money, then quit. My father said I was unemployable, and he was right.”
Unemployable, perhaps, but not unmotivated. A deep-rooted compulsion led to a serious jones for flying, a sport that brought him to the Wrights. In 1974 Young heard about the emerging Outer Banks hang-gliding scene off Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head. He went south to join the action but made a fateful stop at the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, his first encounter with a reproduction of their gossamer-covered ’02 biwing. A hobbyist who had built models of historic planes, Young asked around for a set of plans. There were none.
Undeterred, he began measuring the memorial’s glider to draw up his own schematics. But in comparing old photos with the reproduction, he noticed that the version in front of him was quite different from the original. A research trip to the Library of Congress ensued, as did a meeting with Marvin MacFarland, a renowned Wright brothers scholar who edited the venerated Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, published in 1953. MacFarland was running the library’s science and technology collection; Young brashly knocked on his door.
“He said, ‘What do you want?'” Young recalls. Young told him he’d been doing research and had found documentation about the Wrights that wasn’t in MacFarland’s book. “He said, ‘Come back at 4:45 and I’ll give you 15 minutes.'” The pair wound up drinking until midnight at a nearby bar. “I became convinced that this was something I should dedicate my life to,” says Young. “And MacFarland became my mentor.”
By 1980 Young had completed and flown his first Wright glider, the ’02. After splitting with Hyde and The Wright Experience in the early nineties, he worked briefly with Tom Norton, cofounding Wright Redux and setting his sights again on a working ’03. But he quickly grew frustrated with Redux—the crew was fumbling around, trying to solve basic design problems—so he left in 1999.
It was during his stint with Wright Redux that Young met Udo Joerges, who had built and taken a few short hops in a 1909 Model A, one of the later-model planes that the Wrights licensed to Germany. Joerges could produce the one thing Young couldn’t: a functioning duplicate of the Wrights’ original ’03 engine. Along with a third partner, Mark Kandl, they decided to finance and build a perfect ’03 Flyer. So far the team has spent $250,000, an investment they hope to recoup through sponsorships and educational events.
We arrive at the airport. Taylor hops outside and drags the blue ultralight into the sunlight as Young slips into a flight suit. He dons a helmet and starts examining the flimsy-looking two-seat plane. “This is very draggy and sensitive, so it has flight characteristics closer to what the Wrights have,” he says, waggling the rudder with his hand. A gust of wind buffets us.
“Might be too windy to fly,” Young says, but he settles into the cockpit anyway. “Clear prop!”
As Young taxis toward the runway, Taylor and I trundle after him. “I was up till 2 a.m. fixing stuff at the restaurant, and I’m exhausted,” Taylor says, shaking his head. “He’s the thinker and I’m the doer, and when Rick gets going it’s seven days a week till late at night. My wife says she never sees me.”
Young revs the ultralight and pops off the runway. He climbs, clears the swaying treetops, and starts tossing up and down like a kite without a tail. After a minute he swings around, lands, and taxis up with his arm out, thumb down.
“Wa-a-ay too windy,” he shouts. “In the ’03, the Wright brothers are flying for the first time in an airplane in 26 knots and they themselves later say it’s crazy.”
Young climbs out. “Come back next week,” he tells me. “Maybe the weather will be better.”
A WEEK LATER Richmond is deep in a late-winter cold snap; Young won’t be flying. Instead, he invites me to meet him at the Virginia Aviation Museum, a corner of which he’s commandeered to assemble the ’03. I arrive to find him and Taylor kneeling on the floor cutting thin cotton muslin to cover the Flyer’s upper wing, taking shape behind them. Young is excited. He’s just received photos of Joerges’s newly formed engine block and pistons. “It’s a work of art,” he says, grinning.
I ask Young if he thinks he can really be airborne by summer. “The best way to answer that is to ask the Wrights,” he says evasively. “Once they get to Hatteras, it takes them three weeks to assemble the plane and 20 days of tinkering. So once Udo comes over with the engine, that’s what it’ll take us.”
And that will be when? “Depends on the stock market and on how much money Udo needs to finish assembling the engine. We’ll be flying by the time it gets warm.”
Taylor works silently on the floor. “But this is the fun stuff. Wilbur writes that as he sewed, Orville squatted on the floor marking the fabric.” Young pauses, pointing at his assistant.
“Check it out,” he says. “There’s Orville.”