The Wright brothers created a rich legacy of aviation pioneering, but left precious few details explaining how they pulled off their extraordinary accomplishments.
The Wrights protected their secrets to prevent competitors from gaining an edge. They intended to give a full accounting of their story one day, but after Wilbur, considered the writer of the two siblings, died in 1912, Orville never felt he could adequately do the job.
A modern-day aviation enthusiast in Virginia, Ken Hyde, is trying to fill in the blanks and has a prize piece of technology to help him: an engine made by the Wright brothers' company in 1910 and first flown on an aircraft the following year. It's the only engine made by the Wrights' company that's known to still be operational.
"The whole process is filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle," said Hyde, who heads up the Wright Experience in Warrenton, Va.
Hyde has gathered support in his quest to gain a better understanding of the engine. Last week, engineers at Delphi Energy and Engine Management Systems' technical center in Henrietta tested its performance and capabilities.
College professors, including Kevin Kochersberger of the Rochester Institute of Technology, have delved into the research. A Depew company, PCB Piezotronics, donated about $10,000 worth of equipment used to measure vibration levels during the tests at Delphi. ExxonMobil created a special type of 65-octane fuel to match what the Wrights used to power the engine of the Model "B" flyer decades ago.
Along with providing some answers, the research will have a practical application. Hyde is building a working reproduction of the Model "B," and will use either the original engine or a copy built to match its specifications to make the aircraft fly.
The nearly-complete Model "B," under construction at Hyde's aircraft restoration complex in Virginia, is but one part of a larger endeavor. The Wright Experience is building working reproductions of each of the Wrights' developmental aircraft. Hyde plans to fly a reproduction of the 1903 flyer at the 100th anniversary celebration in Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 2003.
Aircraft technology has come a long way, but the engine that was tested at Delphi still fascinated the people studying it. Its design was efficient, functional and advanced for its day, using lightweight materials optimum for flying, Kochersberger said.
"We're in essence looking at the space shuttle of 1910 when we look at this engine," Hyde said. He tracked down the engine in 1999 in Dayton, Ohio, and started it up for the first time last year.
The engine runs at 35 horsepower, just as the Wrights claimed, said Robert Emens, a Delphi test engineer working on the project with a team led by Raymond Parker. "It does what it's supposed to do."
Taking a page from the Wrights, tests of the engine at Delphi were shrouded in secrecy. The company has had the engine at its Henrietta center since last fall, but asked employees who knew to keep it to themselves. Some employees didn't know it until the testing started last week.
For Kochersberger, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at RIT, the engine project was a chance to blend his work and his passion. He's a pilot and owns a plane, but he also believes the Wrights' work could help inspire younger people.
Kochersberger is working on an educational program aimed at students in grades 6 to 12 that would highlight the Wrights' groundbreaking work, to encourage them to become aeronautical and mechanical engineers.
The Wrights are long gone -- Orville died in 1948 -- but Hyde is determined to give the brothers their due as more than the "lucky bicycle mechanics" they're sometimes depicted as in history. The 1910 engine is a key part of that work, he said.
"We were very fortunate to find this engine in as good of condition as we did," he said.