Wright Brothers Propeller

Direct Dimensions’ 3D Laser Scanner Helps Recreate the Wright Brother’s First Flight

Projects - 1903 Wright Propeller

In honor of our 15th anniversary, let’s take a look back at one of our more significant projects that also parallels two of our most significant business areas – aerospace and historic preservation.

In 1903 at Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers took the first sustained heavier-than-air flight by a human. Ninety-five years later Direct Dimensions had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to laser scan one of the two original propellers from that airplane.

Direct Dimensions had been approached by the Wright Experience, a Virginia company that rebuilds historical airplanes, about recreating the Wright Brother’s first plane for the upcoming centennial celebration. This project would require a reproduction of these propellers, now famous cultural artifacts in two different museums.

The Wright Experience team needed accurate dimensions from one of the original propellers as originally designed by the Wright Brothers. Direct Dimensions was brought in to “reverse engineer” the complex airfoil shape in order to make an accurate digital 3D CAD model. From this data, the original propeller design could be analyzed “virtually” with advanced software to understand its performance, and then also be used to manufacture accurate replicas.

Well in advance of the upcoming December 2003 centennial anniversary celebration of this first flight, DDI engineers, along with our partners at the U.S. Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground, traveled to a major restoration facility for the U.S. Park Service in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. We brought along what were then the latest 3D scanning technologies - a Silver FARO Arm paired with a Kreon laser line scanner.

This combination of 3D technology and reverse engineering experience proved ideal for this very exciting project. The non-contact laser scanner captured the intricate detail and complex shape of the hand carved wood propeller and then our engineers processed this data into the final digital model.

We’re not sure who was more excited about the project: our engineering team for getting to see the original Wright Bros. propeller, or the Park Service conservation team for getting to see our fancy 3D laser scanner!

There are several reasons why this project was so intriguing for our staff at Direct Dimensions. For one, some of our engineers have an aerospace background and we work regularly on modern airplanes, helicopters, satellites, and missiles - all of which were derived from the Wright Bros. work. It is also interesting since the FaroArm was originally conceived for the measurement of a modern airplane component, called a thrust reverser. The project was also very appealing because Direct Dimensions performs many projects for capturing and documenting historically significant artifacts.

Direct Dimensions continued working with the Wright Experience team for several years and captured a dozen other original Wright Bros. propellers from 1903 thru 1911 in various museums and collections around the country. Most of these propellers were also reverse engineered and remanufactured for other Wright airplane model replicas. In addition, several of these propellers were tested by NASA in modern wind tunnels to understand the performance of these early designs.

Regarding these tests performed by NASA, Michael Raphael, founder of Direct Dimensions and one of the engineers who worked on this project, explains, "As we were told by historians during the project, by 1911 the Wright Bros. essentially perfected the propeller to some 80 percent power efficiency. Today's best propellers produce 85 percent efficiency. So from 1903 thru 1911, the Wright Bros. got it nearly perfect compared to our best engineers and powerful computers today. This is why NASA is trying so hard to figure out how they did it."

Direct Dimensions is proud to have been part of such a historically significant project using what we think will become historically significant technology. Over the years that have followed, we have applied this same type of scanning systems to such famous original objects as the Liberty Bell, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, many Matisse and Degas sculptures, and many more. Please visit our website to see a glimpse of this work and also visit the Wright Experience to learn more about the replica Wright Bros. airplanes.