ALL THE WRIGHT STUFF
"I am convinced that human flight is both possible and practical."
Wilbur Wright, 1899
By Bill Rautenstrauch
Observer Staff Writer
A former La Grande man who grew up loving airplanes was recently handed a golden opportunity to explore the legacy of pioneer aviators Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Building a replica of the brothers' 1902 glider a craft sometimes called the great-granddaddy of everything that flies was no easy task, he says.
"We had about 20 pages of plans, and sometimes they were hard to interpret. We'd stand there scratching our heads. A lot of it we did by guesswork. We'd try something, and then we'd try something else," said Justin Baker of the project, carried out in Boise last year.
Baker, a 1993 La Grande High School graduate and U.S. Navy veteran, said his love affair with aviation began at a very early age.
"One time my mom bought my brother a model rocket. He didn't like it, but I sure did. I was the one who ended up building it," he recalled.
With the help of teacher Larry Morrison, Baker the son of La Grande's Nita and Lloyd Baker earned a pilot's license while he was in high school.
To this day, he flies recreationally. But he says his real love lies in the workings of an airplane, in its maintenance and repair.
"I enjoy working on planes and fixing them. It's real rewarding, to make a thing as good as new," he said.
In the Navy he worked as an airframe and hydraulics mechanic, making planes "as good as new" on aircraft carriers in foreign seas.
He was discharged in 1998. After the service, he went to technical school in Colorado, earning a license in air frame and power plant mechanics.
In 1999, he went to work for his current employer, Western Aircraft of Boise. The company specializes in rebuilding airplanes.
"After the Navy, the eight-hour work day with weekends off was a luxury," Baker said.
His first experience with building a plane from the ground up came when a customer asked Western Aircraft to construct an RV8 airplane from a kit.
"It was so much fun, I came in early and worked through my lunch hours to have a chance to do it," he said.
Then last year, Baker's boss Don Markovetz a member of the Idaho Aviation Museum and the Idaho Aviation Hall of Fame asked for volunteers to help build the replica of the Wright's 1902 glider.
Before the project was through, many people would have a hand in it. But in the beginning, Baker and co-worker Adam Barnes were the only two to step forward.
"I think the shortage of volunteers had to do with the amount of time you had to give up," said Baker.
Throughout their career, the Wright brothers designed and built 19 airplanes. The 1902 glider was the immediate predecessor of the engine-powered plane they flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
The glider had design elements that are still used today, including a vertical tail that acts as a rudder, and three axis controls roll, pitch and yaw. It was the first truly controllable aircraft ever built.
The engineering plans for the replica were available free of charge from the Web site of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and Museum of Pioneer Aviation, Baker said.
"You can get the plans for the 1902 glider, but there are none for the 1903 plane," he commented.
Baker, Barnes and Markovetz went to work in June, gathering materials and laying out components.
They had a deadline to meet, since the project was meant to commemorate the centennial of the Wrights' historic powered flight, which took place at Kitty Hawk, Dec. 17, 1903.
An early, time-consuming task involved making and bending the hundreds of pieces of hardware used to tie the aircraft together.
"We had to make so many hooks," Baker said. The hooks were made from 1/4-inch steel rod, heated over a propane fire and bent on a vise.
The volunteers wondered if they could complete the glider by the centennial, but as word of the project spread, many more people decided to get involved.
"People heard about it by word of mouth, and by the end more than 25 were working on it," Baker said.
The group dealt successfully with a host of problems, not the least of which was a shortage of materials used in the original.
The original frame, for instance, was of spruce and ash, but spruce was not available to the replica builders. Oak was substituted.
Also, the 32-foot wings of the original glider were covered with a muslin material which was not available locally. A Boise woman with extraordinary sewing skills made the covers out of cotton instead, Baker said.
Final assembly of the plane was done at a Boise vocational-technical school.
Baker and others considered trying to fly it, but in the end decided it was not a good idea.
"We couldn't be sure if we had built it strong enough, and we were afraid we'd break it," Baker said.
The group finished the glider in time for the centennial. It went on display in the terminal of the Boise airport, and is still there today.
Baker said he was pleased to participate in a project that gives people an idea of the evolution of flight.
"It's amazing the Wright brothers got a plane like that off the ground," he said. "You think of the bumblebee theory. Just looking at a bumblebee, you don't think he can fly but really, he can.
"There was genius involved in making something like that fly. If the Wrights had had today's technology, who knows what they might have done?"