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Air Force pilots participate in historic flight

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

NAGS HEAD, N.C. (Oct. 08, 2002) -- Two Air Force pilots, some spruce wood, a little cotton fabric and a lot of wind are helping re-create history.

Maj. Dawn Dunlop and Capt. Jim Alexander were given the opportunity to fly a replica of the Wright brothers' 1902 glider here Oct. 4 to 8. Dunlop is an F-15 Eagle pilot currently assigned to the Pentagon, and Alexander is an MC-130P Combat Shadow pilot with the 9th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

Air Force Capt. Jim Alexander, an MC-130P Combat Shadow pilot from the 9th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., flies a replica of the Wright brothers' 1902 glider at Nags Head, N.C., on Oct. 7. Volunteers and spectators from all over the world attended this year's reenactment of the Wright brothers' flight. This year's event marked the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' historic flight when they perfected their control system. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efrain Gonzalez.

The glider, an exact replica of Orville and Wilbur Wright's original craft, was built by the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, a nonprofit organization based in West Milton, Ohio. The organization is made up of aviators, historians and educators. The exhibition at Jockey's Ridge State Park, about five miles south of Kitty Hawk, was designed to accomplish several objectives, said Louis Chmiel, one of the chief builders of the plane.

"The intent is to draw attention to important things that happened before December of 1903 and (to the fact that) this is the culmination of the years (the Wright brothers) spent working to understand flight control," Chmiel said. "When they left here in 1902 and went back to Dayton, they knew they understood control, and the next thing they were doing was to motorize it."

Since 1999, the organization has built and flown several replicas of the Wright brothers' aircraft. The group uses the same materials the brothers used to build their gliders: spruce and ash wood, tightly woven cotton fabric and a lot of handcrafted hardware.

The director of the company said the main reason for the project is a deep passion for flying.

"The simplest reason (I do this) is that I love to fly and I love to teach," said Nick Engler. "The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company is an educational institution. We are here to tell the Wright story. That is the best way to create 'seed corn' for aviation (and) to get kids interested."

The 36-foot-long glider has no cockpit. The pilot lies down on a cross bar, exposed to the elements, and uses body movement to control the craft.

The 1902 model is significant, Engler said, because it is the first aircraft to provide three axes of control - roll, pitch and yaw -- to the pilot. The pilot can control roll, tipping the wings; pitch, raising and lowering the nose; and yaw, rotating the aircraft as though it were turning left or right while still on the ground.

"This was the world's first controllable airplane," Engler said. "Everything that has flown successfully since 1902 has had roll, pitch and yaw control. This was the first machine ever to have that."

The Wright brothers' contribution to aviation and the historical significance of the re-enactment of the 1902 flight was not lost on the two Air Force pilots that participated.

"When you fly out on (temporary duty), that view you see from the airplane, you take that for granted now," Dunlop said. "But the Wright brothers made that possible. They gave that to us. The military, and the Air Force, saw the value of aviation. We learned to exploit that value."

Alexander agreed, noting the quick evolution of airpower over the years.

"In 1909 the Wright brothers made the first military flyer that was sold to the Army Signal Corps," he said. "And you can see that we have gone from the 1909 Wright Flyer to the F-22 (Raptor) in less than 100 years. That's pretty amazing."

Despite some early reservations about flying the replica, the experience turned out to be a positive one for Alexander.

"I had visions of face planting (crashing) initially, but it was also a great thrill," he said. "I couldn't believe I was actually flying it. Once the air started moving over the wings, I could tell I had (control of the glider). There was this cool feeling, the same one I get when I lift off in a C-130."

The flights in the glider were considerably shorter - both in terms of time and distance - than those in the MC-130s Alexander normally flies.

"My longest flight was about 210 feet, about 400 feet short of the Wright brothers' flight in this glider. I think the highest I got was about 15 feet," Alexander said. "The sensation is pretty short lived because the flights are so short. You get the time to make one control input and see the aircraft react to it, and then you are pretty much transitioning to a landing phase."

In December, the Air Force and the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission will begin a yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight on Dec. 17, 1903.