JROTC cadets revisit history, build Wright Flyer replica

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Melissa Copeland
  • Air University Public Affairs
When a SouthWest Edgecombe High School, N.C., Air Force Junior ROTC cadet asked her senior aerospace science instructor if their unit could build a Wright Flyer, he thought she meant a scaled down version.

She did not.

Using the original Wright Flyer wing span of 40.4-feet long and 8.1-feet high, the cadets used 504 feet of pine in various lengths and widths, 292 feet of wire rope to "guyed" the wings together, 421 feet of muslin to attach to the wings, 160 feet of dowel rod, 112 feet of angle iron for the trailer and three wheel axles to build the flyer.

"To me, building a plane of that size is a once in a lifetime experience," said Cadet James Varnell.

The 12-month project finished seven days shy of the first flight anniversary of the Wright Brothers in December 2008 and accompanied the unit to three Christmas parades in the community.

"It's a thrilling experience to know a bunch of kids can build an exact replica of the Wright Brothers plane," said Cadet B.J. Boykin.

Inspired by a Curriculum in Action trip in October 2007 to the Wright Brothers' memorial in Kitty Hawk, N.C., the Wright Flyer project provided detachment NC-945 a hands-on approach to learning.

"Teaching from textbooks, going on field trips and watching educational videos is alright, but imagine the education that would come from simply the attempt to build a full-scale plane," said retired Col. Mike Whitehurst, SouthWest Edgecombe High School Air Force JROTC senior aerospace science instructor.

Colonel Whitehurst and retired Chief Master Sgt. Emanuel Williams, SouthWest High School Air Force JROTC aerospace science instructor, facilitated the project by ordering blueprints of the Wright Flyer from the Smithsonian Institution and applying for grants in late 2007.

Edgecombe-Martin County Electric Membership Cooperative awarded the unit a Bright Ideas Grant for $483. Through fundraisers, such as bake sales and candy sales, the cadets raised an additional $2,000 needed to fund the project.

The flyer was a hands-on, cadet-run project with minimal assistance from the instructors and one parent, Jim Varnell.

"We didn't want this to be an 'adult-driven' project, so we didn't ask any of our parents to help," Colonel Whitehurst said. "Our cadets built this airplane. They know that, and they are proud of that."

With a classroom 46-feet long, it quickly became a tight squeeze for people, tools, materials, school books, desks and an airplane spanning 40 feet.

"When that plane was in here, it made it a lot smaller," said Cadet Eric Armstrong.
Relocating outdoors when the weather permitted became necessary.

"We were forced to dismantle and reconstruct the airplane several times during the year," Colonel Whitehurst said.

Cadets worked on the airplane in teams of five to 10 students during the school day, four days-a-week while other cadets participated in academics or drill practice. Many after school and weekend hours were also dedicated to finishing the flyer.

"Several of the cadets threw themselves into the effort," the colonel said. "If I had let them, they would have skipped every other class, worked all night and every weekend."
Each cadet in the detachment contributed to the project and was given a grade for participation. The project proved daunting at times for the detachment of 239 cadets and two instructors.

"We made a promise to the cadets that we would build a full-scale replica of the Wright Brothers' flyer," Colonel Whitehurst said. "We kept our promise. There were times along the journey that we wondered if we had bitten off more than we could chew, but we stayed the course and completed the task. I'm very proud of my team."

For one cadet, the project is something he'll look back on long after graduation.

"When I graduate from high school, at least I can say I've done something with my four years of high school," said Cadet Kevin Romiski.

The replica Wright Flyer is currently being stored in Bethel, N.C. until a more permanent home is found.