Bill Gahn returns to the origins of flight
Ghan stands with his replica of the Wright brothers Flyer. Ghan spend
four years building the airplane for the Dec. 17, 1903 centennial
of powered flight.
By today’s standards
the machine hardly looks like Earth-shattering technology — pieces
of wood, crisscrossing cables, bicycle chains and cloth. In fact, it looks
amazingly delicate, like a gust of wind could pick it up and fling it
into a broken heap. But to Bill Ghan, the airplane is just that, technology
so revolutionary that it changed the world overnight.
“Just think where we’ve
gone in a hundred years,” says Bill. “To Mars and beyond.
Bill stands in a hanger at
the Willow Springs airport alongside his full-size replica of the airplane
flown into the history books by brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright near
Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903. Four years ago Bill realized the centennial
of the first successful flight of a powered aircraft was approaching and
decided he wanted to build a Wright “Flyer.” Not satisfied
with just building a large model of the Flyer, Bill built a functioning
airplane that he plans to fly on the centennial of the Wright brother’s
Bill is quite qualified to
build a flying replica of the Wright brothers’ Flyer. The plane
will be the 20th he’s built. In fact, Bill, 66, has spent much of
his life studying and building aircraft. In his 36 years as a high school
industrial arts teacher, Bill spent much of that time teaching students
“The theory I had was
that the value they got from building aircraft could be applied to many
industries or careers,” says Bill.
Often the students would build
a complete airplane in as little as three weeks. These were planes built
with wooden wings, metal tubular fuselages and usually covered in fabric,
all of which had to be constructed by the students.
Bill’s first student-built
flying project was not actually an airplane. While teaching drafting in
1959 at Norwood High School, Bill had his students go through Popular
Science and Popular Mechanics magazines and look for projects that interested
them. One group decided to design and build a hovercraft.
“It looked like a flying
saucer and had a small 2-cylinder engine that could lift a person off
the ground a couple of inches. It was controlled by the person standing
on it shifting their weight. We soon discovered it wasn’t very practical
in the Ozarks because, like water, it always ran down hill.”
Despite some limitations it
came to the attention of the Ford Motor Company which sponsored a national
industrial arts competition and awarded the Norwood High School hovercraft
first prize in its division. Ford even kept the hovercraft on display
for a time.
Wright brothers making their historic flight.
Bill was so impressed with
his students he decided aircraft construction was easily within their
grasp. “I said to myself, ‘Hey, these kids can do this!’”
Bill spent the next three decades
teaching at Cabool and Mansfield high schools before retiring in 1995.
He has restored several planes for friends and had more than enough work
to keep him busy, he says, but the opportunity to build a Wright Flyer
for the centennial of flight was too much to pass up.
Bill, a member of the Experimental
Aircraft Association, approached his local EAA chapter after building
a wooden wing rib based on the original Wright design. The next meeting
he came with a completed wing panel that was followed by a second wing
panel and proposal that the chapter build the Flyer. The board declined
because of liability concerns, but, undeterred, Bill continued with the
help of many of the chapter’s members.
Wright Flyer is virtually identical to the original, though he has made
a number of changes for “risk management,” he says. The original
Wright Flyer was constructed using piano wire pulled tight by hand so
the plane was very flexible and difficult to control in flight. Bill constructed
his plane with modern aircraft cable tightened with turnbuckles, making
it much more rigid.
Probably the main difference
in the two planes is how it is piloted. The Wright brothers flew their
Flyer from a prone position, lying in a cradle attached to the plane’s
controls. To control the plane, the pilot shifted his weight in the cradle,
which changed wing warping and the rudder while a simple wooden lever
controlled the elevator. Bill built his plane with a seat, much like the
Wright brother’s later Model B flyers, and he controls the plane
with a more conventional steering wheel.
takes a seat in his replica Wright Flyer. The original plane required
the pilot to lie in a cradle.
One of the most difficult parts
of the original Flyer to reproduce is the innovative 4-cylinder gasoline
engine built in the Wright brothers’ Dayton, Ohio, bicycle factory.
The engine was the first combustion engine ever built with an aluminum
At least one other centennial
Wright Flyer reproduction is being outfitted with an exact replica of
the original engine. Well beyond his technical abilities or financial
resources, Bill is using a small 4-cylinder automobile engine to power
his aircraft, one that provides considerably more than the 12 horsepower
of the Wright brother’s original engine.
Bill has even gone as far as
carving the propellers himself, following the dimensions and shape of
the original. Bill says he is most impressed by the innovation of the
Wright brothers who not only invented the airplane propeller, but perfected
and proved many modern theories of aerodynamics in a crude wind tunnel
That day in 1903 saw the Wright
brothers take their plane up four times. The first, most famous flight
lasted only 12 seconds and covered just 120 feet. In their last flight
of the day, which proved to be the Flyer’s final before being severely
damaged by high winds, Wilbur flew for 59 seconds, landing 852 feet after
takeoff. Despite the plane’s destruction, the brothers knew they
had accomplished something no one else could claim — controlled,
sustained flight in a powered aircraft.
For Bill, building the Wright
replica is a fitting capstone to a long career. He’s honored that
the Springfield/Branson Regional Airport will hang his Flyer from the
ceiling of a new terminal being planned for the airport.
“That will be my legacy,”
he says, adding that his influence can also be found in the many students
he’s taught over the years.
“That’s how I got
them ready for college and for industry,” says Bill.