Wrights fly again, via computer

You might wonder what it was like 100 years ago to be Orville and Wilbur Wright, skimming the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C., in the first aircraft to fly under its own power.
But Michael Selig, Rob Deters and Glen Dimock KNOW what it was like, or at least as close as anybody's going to get, short of rebuilding the Wright Flyer nearly a century after Wilbur crashed it on the fourth of its historic flights Dec. 17, 1903.
Selig, a University of Illinois aeronautical and astronautical engineering professor, and UI graduate students Deters and Dimock have created what's probably the most accurate computerized flight simulation of the kite-like fledgling airplane.
"It's unlikely this kind of fidelity would be in a consumer (flight simulation software package)," said Dimock, who is going to work for Frasca International, an Urbana company that makes professional-level training simulators used by flying schools, airlines, air forces and others worldwide.
The simulation is so good, Wilbur and Orville probably would have appreciated some time on it before they tried flying for real.
Then again, it might have scared the brothers back to their senses and their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop.
"It's flyable; most pilots could fly it with a little practice," said Selig, a pilot himself.
But lose concentration for a fraction of a second, and you're likely to be headed nose up or nose down, and headed for trouble either way, he said.
"It's not a joy ride," Selig said.
As the approach of the 100th anniversary of the brothers' first flight began to generate renewed interest in the event, Selig more than a year ago started to get an itch.
"I wanted to get a real feel for what this might have been like to fly," he said.
Most people would have just kept wondering what it was like. But computer modeling aircraft - as well as racing cars, sailboats and other things with wing- or propeller-like "airfoil" surfaces - is Selig's specialty.
He also teaches classes in creating flight simulators and has worked on other historical simulations, including one of the Red Baron's final flight for a Discovery Channel episode in December.
He's currently working on a simulator for an "ornithopter," a propellerless plane that flies by flapping its wings like a bird, which is being developed in an experiment at the University of Toronto.
Selig said the idea of creating a Wright Flyer simulator also was attractive because a lot of data on it existed, historical and otherwise, including NASA wind tunnel tests on a full-scale physical model in 1999.
Nationally, at least one group, the Los Angeles Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is trying to get a flyable replica ready for use later this year.
In the computer, the three UI researchers have married the mass of data on the Wright Flyer to a free, "open source" flight simulator called FlightGear, which included a nicely rendered graphical model of the Wright's craft.
In essence, the marriage - sealed by line after line of computer code incorporating the data - makes the plane on the screen behave like the real thing, "as faithfully as possible," Selig said.
"The motion is driven all by the aerodynamics, the physics, so to speak,"he said.
The project was different from the modeling work Selig normally does, which yields new designs for optimal airfoil surfaces, such as the wings on the keel of an Americas Cup racing yacht, something he worked on last year.
"This was reverse engineering," Selig said. "(I) had to back out from historical data. It was a real piece of detective work."
The researchers were conscious of the history behind the project as they proceeded.
"I think that's the most interesting part," Dimock said. "This gives you an appreciation for the Wright brothers as pilots rather than just engineers."
"They tested their own gliders," said Deters, who plans to do his doctoral work in modeling and simulation. "They tested everything they did, flipped a coin to see who was going to fly."
Selig, who has flown a hang glider and model planes at Kitty Hawk, and Dimock, who is also a pilot, said they would have been happy to take a spin in the real Wright Flyer.
"With some practice in the simulator first," Dimock added. "This doesn't fly anything like a modern airplane."

You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at kline@news-gazette.com.

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