ALEX REMEMBERS
a personal memoir

Memories of the Wright Brothers come alive through Ken Hyde's flight-capable reproductions

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet


Hart O Berg (L) and Wilbur Wright at the controls of a 1908 Wright Flyer.

My good friend Jim Davis (ex-FAA) introduced me to Ken Hyde, a retired American Airlines captain who lived in Warrenton VA. At the time, Ken was involved in building 3 flight-capable full size reproductions of the first Wright Flyer. His workshop and staff were amazing and exceptional. They manufactured reproductions of the Wright Flyer engines, propellers and everything else.

Since few blueprints—if any—were left behind by the Wright brothers, Ken carefully studied all the old notes, letters and drawings from the Wright brothers that he could find. The results were that the reproductions are more like the original than the so-called original Wright Flyer, which is hanging from the ceiling in the Smithsonian.

Ken Hyde, a former American Airlines captain, is the creator and driving force behind the skilled group of craftsmen who build reproductions of the revered Wright Brothers Flyer.

And here is the explanation: On the same day of the first flight, December 17, 1903, an evening storm upended the original Wright Flyer, seriously damaging it.

The remains were packed in a large box and shipped to Dayton OH, home of the Wright brothers. It rested there for 15 years, even under water during a flood. That same location was used as a spare parts depot for subsequent Wright airplanes. Later on, Orville had it rebuilt mostly from memory.

Reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk in 2003.

But was this aircraft really rebuilt from the wreckage precisely like the original? For one thing, the cables to the wing warping are reversed in the Smithsonian Flyer.

Better not try to fly it. Ken still believes the NASM 1903 is a true national treasure since Orville's hands crafted this Flyer, whereas his is a reproduction.

In 1928 Orville shipped the aircraft to the Science Museum in London, because the Smithsonian recognized the Langley Aerodrome as the 1st "flight capable" aircraft, even though both prototypes crashed immediately after launch from a houseboat on the Potomac. Much later, Glenn Curtis actually flew a significantly modified version of the Aerodrome.

After World War II the British shipped the Wright Flyer back to the US, with Orville's approval. And after repairing some damage incurred during the transit, it now hangs in the Smithsonian Aviation Museum in Washington DC.

The original aircraft, as well as the reproductions, were extremely unstable when airborne. But Ken built a primitive simulator, and actually 2 of his Flyer reproductions were flown by him and his staff. When I visited there later with my good friend George Sylvester, a retired USAF fighter pilot and 3-star general, I tried to fly the simulator and immediately crashed.

Illustration ofSamuel Langley's Aerodrome. Prototypes were built but the full-scale Aerodrome crashed into the Potomac River immediately after being launched from a ship.

Ken Hyde told me that he became interested in the Wright brothers story after reading the book Kill Devil Hill written by Harry Combs, my former boss at Learjet and still my good friend until his death in Dec 2003. Ken said he really would like to speak to Combs, so I picked up the phone and found Harry at his home on the Harry Combs Boulevard in Denver, I told Harry that an admirer of his wanted to speak with him, and their conversation went on for an hour.

Greg Cone, chief engineer at Ken Hyde's workshop, works on a 4 cylinder Wright engine. The group manufactures not only airframes but also propellers and engines. A few original Wright engines have been reconditioned there while others have been newly reproduced.

After making the initial introduction, I withdrew from the case. During a later visit to the Combs ranch in Montana, Harry told me he was not much interested in sponsoring one of those aircraft. Then Jim Greenwood, former Learjet public relations vp, got into the act and offered Harry the opportunity to name the aircraft the "Harry Combs Wright Flyer." Harry caught on and bought the aircraft.

Harry Combs, center, bought a Wright Flyer reproduction and donated it to the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk NC. Here, during the presentation ceremony, he stands with (L–R) Astronaut and long-time friend Neil Armstrong, US Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), a paramedic who assisted the then ill Combs, and US Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, whose father was a Combs management employee.

He was very much involved in the project and was looking forward to presenting the Flyer to the US National Park Service for the Wright Brothers National Memorial during the Centennial celebrations on December 17, 2003 at Kitty Hawk.

During a dinner with the Combs family the day before, his adult children told me that sheer willpower kept Harry alive until this event. By then he was almost 91 years old and not in good health. Harry died a few days after returning home from this event, but he had accomplished his mission.

The Wright brothers moved to Kitty Hawk because they knew headwinds there were practically constant at 20-kt speeds, which the Wright Flyer needed to become airborne. On the day of the Centennial, however, the wind dropped to 8 kts, and the wooden rail was wet from a morning rain, the water spray stopped one of the 4 cylinders of the engine and also blinded the pilot.

 

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