It is slow, noisy and so hard to fly that pilots cannot stand more than 30min in the air. But the 1911 Wright B Flyer has something magical

Dayton Approach, Wright Flyer 3786 Bravo, off Wright Brothers Airport, squawking 1200." "Flyer 86 Bravo, squawk 0163 and ident. Say height climbing to."

"Approach, Flyer 86 Bravo 5 squawking 0163…and we'll stay as low as possible."

Hear that conversation while flying the skies around Dayton Ohio and you might think you have flown through a time warp. But look out of the window and you might just see the 1911 Wright B Flyer passing at a lightning-fast 48kt (88km/h). Based at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport (MGY), the Flyer regularly carries its passengers back in time.

The birth of this time machine is as interesting as the Wright Brothers' story itself, and filled with the same dogged determination. A small group of Dayton visionaries dreamed of giving the nation a birthday present. For Dayton, what could be more appropriate than a flying replica of a Wright Brothers aircraft. But which one? The brothers built many early models and their first aeroplanes were notoriously unstable and hard to fly. The group finally settled on their first "production" model, the Wright B Flyer, delivered to the Army Signal Corps in 1911. The story began in 1975 as the US bicentennial approached.

By the time the antique aircraft was complete, over 600 volunteers had taken part in transforming a dream into reality. On 21 July 1982, chief pilot John Warlick taxied their dream on to the 3,660m (12,000ft) runway at Wright-Patterson AFB where the aircraft had been assembled. Crash trucks lined the runway. To make this attempt from a military field required approval by the secretary of the air force. Yet the first flight was rather tame, compared to future flights. Warlick simply took off, completed one circuit around the pattern, and landed. It would take another year to get the aircraft certificated in the "Experimental" category. During that year the Flyer moved to its final home, Dayton's Wright Brothers Airport, 16km (10 miles) south of the city.

Besides its numerous appearances around Dayton, the US Air Force has "borrowed" the Flyer on several occasions, tucking the bird in the belly of a Lockheed Martin C-5 to take it to Maxwell AFB, Alabama (1985), Brooks AFB, Texas (1987), Berlin, Germany (1990) and Whiteman AFB, Missouri (1993).  "I often tell folks that this 'plane has been up to 39,000ft and 600mph. Then I show them the picture of the C-5 trip to Berlin," says Bob Beecroft, treasurer of the Wright B Flyer organisation.

As you approach the Wright B Flyer, you sense that flying the aircraft has to be different. First you are unsure of what to check; everything looks odd to a modern pilot. Yet the checks are really quite normal - fuel, oil, controls, etc - it is just their odd location that makes you uneasy.

Then there is the chore of getting on board. First, step gingerly over the bracing wires running from the wings to the front skids, then climb a three-step ladder into the seat. Once seated, it hits you: there is nothing in front. You are the leading edge. You know you will need those goggles, and you mentally remind yourself not to smile too much. They say you can tell a Flyer pilot by the bugs on his or her teeth.

Starting is similar to firing up a modern aircraft owing to the present-day Lycoming engine sitting immediately behind the pilot. As the engine comes to life, however, you feel much more vibration than you are used to. The engine sits squarely on centreline, inches behind the passengers. Add to that the two 2.4m (8ft) propellers spinning on what seem to be rather "lightweight" wing braces, and you resign yourself to a flight that will be a shaking experience.

Checking the chains

Taxiing the aircraft is not difficult if you are used to steering by differential braking. The nose wheels and large main wheels give fairly positive control, but the aircraft tends to weather-vane if taxiing in crosswinds. At run-up, things seem to be fairly normal, except that you need to check the gearbox RPM as well as engine RPM - and look over your shoulder to check those chains driving the propellers. Tension has to be "just right".

Wright Brothers Airport is uncontrolled, so after checks, you announce your take-off on 122.8, set the transponder to 1200, and taxi into position. When lined up, you pull a "D" ring handle on the left side of the pilot's seat, locking the nose wheels. Now you are ready to roll.

You apply full power. Acceleration is surprisingly good, fed by the 168kW (225hp) Lycoming and those big propellers. You notice not only the vibration, but also the air-slap from the propeller blades hitting disturbed air trailing behind the wings and struts. At 40kt you pull back on the automobile-type wheel and the "nose" begins to rise.

The overwhelming impression is of noise, wind, vibration, and an unlimited view forward. This is definitely "different". Initial climbout is good, but as soon as the aircraft leaves ground effect you actually sense the drag. This is a drag machine, make no mistake about that, and the wind grabs at every wire and strut. The elevator and ailerons feel heavy and the slow airspeed translates into slow response.

Then air currents begin to toss you about, and you notice how relatively ineffective the rudders are. The aircraft is neutrally stable, meaning you have to constantly make adjustments; it will not trim out. Each bump in the air points the "nose" in a different direction, and you forcefully push those slow-responding rudders until the aircraft temporarily points in the direction you want to go. Seconds later you will do it again. This may be flying, but it is also work. Pilot Don Stroud says unashamedly: "I can only take about 30min in the Flyer at one time. The noise, wind and vibration, along with having to fly the thing constantly, just wear you down."

Now it is time to land this beast. You make a normal pattern, relatively close in (just in case), and use power all the way to touchdown. Without power this drag machine falls like a rock. To descend, slowly reduce power from 32in manifold pressure to 25in, and push the "nose" over to increase speed to 50kt. This makes the controls a little less mushy (handy for manoeuvring). As you get close to the runway, you ease off the power and pull the wheel back into your chest. She sits down positively around 40kt and rolls true with just a little foot work on the peddles and toe brakes.

You have done it, and have a strange urge to kiss the ground - for good reason. Not all flights have been successful. The Flyer has had three forced landings and one aborted take-off. Broken chains and propeller shafts have been the culprits. In one, lucky, occurrence, the broken aircraft settled into the field of Clare Jacobs, who came out to thank the bewildered pilots for so honouring her. It seems that, when she was young, her father took her out to Huffman Prairie to watch the Wright brothers fly; now one of their aeroplanes had actually landed in her back yard.

Warlick tells of a flight that almost ended the Flyer's short life. When equipped with its original engine, an unsupercharged 150kW Lycoming, the Flyer participated in a Dayton civic event honouring the Wright brothers. Event complete, it was time to return to Wright Brothers Airport, 30km to the south. But by then the temperature had climbed into the 90s. The Flyer had never been flown in such conditions. But, with 3,600m available for take-off from Patterson Field, Warlick and co-pilot Bill Sloan started down runway 24 and finally lifted off, only to settle back on to the concrete. They kept going, holding the aircraft down just a bit longer. Again the Flyer lifted off and started climbing, ever so slowly. At the runway's end the aircraft had about 9m of altitude and a rate of climb measured at inches per minute.

Warlick headed straight out, down the Mad River valley. Barely making it over Huffman Dam, Warlick turned right to reach Highway 4, hoping he might find some friendly updrafts over the hot pavement. But he and Sloan found little help along the road. Then they spied power lines ahead, cutting low across the highway. They could not get over them, and there was not enough space to go under, so their only option was to turn back. Yet any pilot knows that, in turns, draggy aircraft lose altitude. The Flyer made a wide, shallow turn over a small lake, but precious altitude slipped away.

Too low

Now the aircraft was headed back to Patterson, and towards the dam - too low to clear the top. "I though maybe I could climb a few more feet and land (hard) on top of the dam," says Warlick. It was going to be close, but as they approached the dam, the south-west wind created just enough updraft to carry the Flyer over the top. Now they had to dodge tall trees as the Flyer's big propellers beat the thin air to keep them aloft. Warlick had to think ahead - quick manoeuvres were out of the question as they skimmed over the forest.

Patterson tower knew their plight and cleared them to land anywhere - runways, taxiways, anywhere - if they could just make it to the field. Finally edging past the last tree, the runway lay ahead. Warlick did not think twice about a downwind landing as he greased the Flyer on to the first 300m.

The Flyer has given many pilots a taste of "what it was like back then". When astronaut Joe Engle took a ride, in one month he had flown at both ends of the aviation spectrum, flying both the Space Shuttle and the Flyer. Even if you are not an astronaut, you too can go aloft in this historic machine. For a donation of $125, Warlick, Sloan or Stroud will take you up, and back in time.

There is no charge to visit the Flyer, but donations are always welcome. You will find a cadre of enthusiasts eager to show you around. If you visit the aircraft, do not just look; try to sense the spirit. It is alive in those who care for the Flyer; it is even in the aircraft itself. You will leave Dayton enriched by the experience and loving aviation even more.

Contact Wright B Flyer at 10550 Springsboro Pike, Miamisburg, Ohio 45342. Tel: +1 (937) 885 2327. Website:

Source: Flight International