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Ford Motor Company Team Helps Uncover Elusive Secrets of the Wright Brothers

Ford engineers test authentic reproduction of 1903 Wright engine in Dearborn lab

  • Using the same sophisticated engine testing facilities it uses to develop automobiles, Ford Motor Company is helping to ensure the integrity and success of the reproduction 1903 Wright Flyer that will exclusively re-enact the Wright brothers’ first flight near Kitty Hawk, N.C., on its 100th anniversary.
  • Ford is celebrating its aviation history and shared 100th anniversary year with the Wright brothers’ first flight by sponsoring EAA’s Countdown to Kitty Hawk and producing Lincoln Aviator SUVs.

DEARBORN, Mich. - Jim and Steve Hay adjust their 1903 Wright engine reproduction as it runs in Ford's Dynamometer Lab.

DEARBORN, Mich. - Secretive aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright left few clues about how they achieved their historic first powered, controlled flight nearly 100 years ago. But Ford Motor Company has been able to solve some of the mystery and preserve the information for generations of innovators to come.

At its Dynamometer Laboratory in Dearborn, Mich. - the same facility Ford uses to develop powertrains of the future - the company conducted a controlled testing of the engine that will power the only authentic, full-scale reproduction of the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer. The engine and plane will re-enact the Wrights' first flight this December - 100 years from the historic moment.

A team of a dozen Ford engineers, technicians and supervisors worked with the builders of the reproduction 1903 Wright engine to test and analyze its crude design and determine the power and efficiency of the engine that put the Wrights in history books. Ford's role in testing the engine was not to make improvements, but to help understand the design in theory.

"There were a lot of engine changes or alternate design modifications that could have been recommended by the Ford engineers," said Hugh Brooks, the Ford Motor Company engineer who led the team that performed the landmark engine testing. "However, the objective was to maintain historical accuracy, use similar processes and the same materials. I believe we achieved that."

While extensive testing helped ensure the success and integrity of the reproduction airplane for its re-enactment flight, the testing also revealed fascinating details about the Wrights' historic achievement. View a fact sheet detailing key results from the testing.

"The ability of Ford Motor Company to capture the engine performance and other materials testing data and have it available for future generations are perhaps Ford's greatest contributions," Brooks said.

One for the history books
Steve Hay and Jim Hay of Hay Manufacturing in Lake Geneva, Wis., spent decades diligently researching the Wrights' engine designs. Even though the original drawings no longer exist, the Hays were able to reproduce the 1903 engine by piecing together bits of information and a variety of plans along with clues from countless photographs from the era to faithfully follow the Wrights' design. They then hand-built the engine using authentic materials to power the 1903 Wright Flyer reproduction built by The Wright Experience of Warrenton, Va., for EAA's Countdown to Kitty Hawk Presented by Ford Motor Company.

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Jim and Steve Hay adjust their 1903 Wright engine reproduction as it runs in Ford's Dynamometer Lab.

"No single set of drawings in existence will make an engine you can put together," Steve Hay said. "It was a real detective job."

When the engine runs, it is loud, smoky, leaks oil, isn't very fuel-efficient and is susceptible to wear and tear - characteristics consumers would never accept in a modern automobile. "It was an experiment," Jim Hay said. "The Wright brothers designed it to do a specific job and run for just a few minutes."

The Hay brothers let out a whoop as the engine sputtered and came to life for the first time in one of Ford's specialized single-cylinder dynamometer test cells. It was the first time anyone saw the historic engine in full operation. "Thanks to Ford, we're getting data even the Wright brothers never had," Jim Hay said as instruments churned out performance numbers for the crude engine.

Ford's transfers modern-day technology to yesterday
Multiple sensors were installed on the engine and the dynamometer to provide torque, speed and temperature information vital to understanding how the engine is performing. In-cylinder pressure transducers were also used to provide an "inside view" of what was actually occurring inside the engines combustion chambers. This same data is collected and used on a daily basis by Ford engineers to develop the powertrains for its vehicles.

"The engine is an incredibly simple solution to the problems the Wrights faced," Brooks said. "They knew they needed to develop an engine with just the right amount of horsepower that would drive the propellers and provide the necessary thrust and still be as light as possible."

The tests pinpointed issues with the engine the Hays could not have found on their own, Brooks said. "For example, Ford engineers were able to suggest modifications to the intake manifold to make the engine run successfully under full power load," he said. "If they had run this engine at Kitty Hawk on the 100th anniversary without that knowledge, the plane probably wouldn't fly."

Ford's role in the build process
Earlier in the plane reproduction process, Ford analyzed 17 different samples of materials taken from the Wright brothers' test engine on loan from the Engineers Club of Dayton, Ohio, as well as metal wires for the wing struts to determine their physical and chemical characteristics.

"The testing we performed at the Ford facilities is important because we're reaching the end of an era of Wright family members from whom we can glean more information," said Gayle Gullen, the Ford materials engineer who led a 10-person team at the company's materials testing laboratory in Dearborn. "Our aim was to identify materials used 100 years ago and reference to modern-day materials to ensure authenticity of the reproduction. We expected to find more raw materials, but many of the parts were more refined than we thought. For example, the oil pan residue we found was mostly the same type of mineral oil used in today's engines."

This testing involves the same processes and equipment Ford uses to improve the quality and performance of its vehicles. "By having metallurgical, chemistry and polymer labs within one department, we can get to the root of almost any problem through chemical, environmental or physical testing," said Bob Mull, director of Ford Product Analysis and Verification.

Ford also provided specialized equipment for shop operations required to manufacture specific parts of the wooden airplane and propellers and was consulted on wing fabric material and remanufacture.

Ford Motor Company's historic connection with aviation
The history of Ford Motor Company is inseparably linked with the history of flight. The automobile company was founded the same year - 1903 - as the Wright brothers' famous flight and in the same spirit of innovation and scientific optimism. As one of the premier innovators of his generation, Henry Ford helped put the nation on wings through his efforts to develop aircraft to serve the public, then built public confidence in their safety, reliability and necessity.

The efforts further strengthen the historic connection between Ford Motor Company and the Wright brothers. "I think if Henry Ford were here today, he would marvel at the ingenuity of the Wrights and how their dreams - his and the Wrights' - truly did change the world," said Jan Valentic, Ford Motor Company vice president, Global Marketing. "Today the stories of these three incredible men should serve as a lesson regarding the power of innovation. Through the past 100 years it has served as the foundation of Ford, as has our fascination with aviation."

Ford laid the foundation for our modern system of commercial aviation including the world's first modern airport and concrete runway, popularization of all-metal aircraft with the Ford Tri-Motor, development of radio navigation and the company's assembly line manufacturing of aircraft during World War II. For his pioneering efforts, Ford was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1984 and recognized as an aviation pioneer by the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission in 2002. A full timeline of Ford's contributions to aviation is available at under the news section.

What's next
In 2004, the 1903 Wright Flyer reproduction will be donated to The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich., for display, helping realize Henry Ford's dream of displaying the Wrights' plane along with the Wrights' childhood home and bicycle shop.

Ford Motor Company is the presenting sponsor of the Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) Countdown to Kitty Hawk, which features an interactive touring pavilion and the exclusive re-enactment of the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17. For more information, go to


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