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Propelling the Wright Flyer into the 21st Century
Posted Fri December 05, 2003 @09:27AM
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News Fluent Inc., world leaders in commercial computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software, announced today the results from a study that was undertaken as part of the centennial celebration of the first powered flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright in Kitty Hawk, NC. The project has been carried out in association with the Los Angeles Branch of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) to re-evaluate the original 1903 Wright Flyer aircraft with modern technologies not available to the Wright Brothers 100 years ago. The AIAA-LA chapter has built two full-scale replicas of the original Wright Brothers’ aircraft from the Smithsonian blue prints, and plans to fly their newest replica on Dec. 17, the anniversary of the original flight. To contribute to the AIAA-LA’s safety analysis of the replica, Fluent modeled the airflow around the aircraft’s propellers for a range of flight conditions, to reveal some of their aerodynamic secrets.

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Dr. Christoph Hiemcke, an aerospace CFD engineer at Fluent Inc’s headquarters in Lebanon, New Hampshire, carried out a full CFD analysis of the Wright Flyer propeller blade based on a copy of the original blueprints by Louis B. Christman. The propellers used for the 1903 flight were made of laminated spruce, and were hand-carved by Wilbur Wright during the winter of 1902/3, while Orville Wright was working on the engine. Dr. Hiemcke’s simulations showed that the blades did indeed perform very well for a wide range of operating speeds. The AIAA-LA engineers used the aerodynamic loads predicted from the CFD simulations to do a structural analysis of the blade for their replica aircraft, which will fly above the historic speed during their re-enactment flight to ensure the safety of the pilot. The original Wright Flyer in 1903 produced about 67 lb of thrust at 350 RPM; the CFD predictions agreed well with these measurements.

Speaking about his work, Dr. Hiemcke said “The Wright brothers were revolutionary aerospace pioneers using leading-edge technology and scientific methods way ahead of their time to produce the successful first flight that we are celebrating this year. Our work has confirmed the high efficiency of their original propeller, but also how close they were to stall conditions given the engine they used!” He adds that “their aircraft actually came in 75 lbs heavier than their original plan, but because their propeller was more efficient than they predicted and they had good headwind conditions that day in December 1903, they were able to produce the first successful powered flight by a man. If they were alive today, there is no doubt that they would have used CFD to improve their designs.”

Additional Resources

propeller simulation
FLUENT CFD Simulation of the Wright Flyer propeller blade showing pressure contours on the surface and (L to R) tip flow pathlines at an elevated RPM and airspeed, velocity vectors, and velocity contour lines.

pressure on the center plane
Complete generic 1903 Wright Flyer FLUENT CFD predictions of pressure on the center plane through the aircraft.

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