Rural Missouri Magazine

An Airworthy Legacy
Bill Gahn returns to the origins of flight

by Jeff Joiner

Bill 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. It’s unbelievable.”

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 historic accomplishment.

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 aircraft construction.

“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.

The 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.

Aerodynamically, Bill’s 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.

Gahn 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 case.

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 they constructed.

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.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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