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The Rest of the Story: Dan Wright and the Wright Flyer

Interview by Clay Baker

May 2016

Dan, where did you grow up?

“I was born in Ohio and came to Southern California as a child, to the San Fernando Valley when I was very young and then to Santa Barbara in 1959.”

When and where did you learn to fly?

“I started at Van Nuys when I was 17, and got my license when I was about 18—just out of high school.”

Why did you want to fly?

“When I was 6 or 7 years old, I saw airplanes flying overhead, so when Christmas came along all I wanted was a reindeer—just one so I could ride on its back. My urge to fly goes way back. One of my closest friends, Roger Ditman, well his stepfather was Herman “Fish” Salmon, the Lockheed test pilot. He would take us flying in his Bonanza. When I was about 17, I got my first flying lessons—that just blew me away.

“Later I bought an old La Salle for 50 bucks. I traded it to a guy for a BSA motorcycle that winter. The next summer I traded it to a guy who was starting a flying school for $600 worth of flying lessons—he wanted a motorcycle and he needed customers—6 bucks an hour for the airplane and 3 bucks for the instructor. I soloed at Van Nuys, no radio, in an Aeronca. I went to San Fernando, they had six or seven airplanes and I flew them all; they were all taildraggers. I just rented planes over the years while raising my family of three kids. Later I moved to Santa Barbara and bought a Navion with a partner, then became a partner in a PT-22. I later flew a V-tail Bonanza.

“I got an S2A Pitts for my 50th birthday and flew it for nine years. I bought a Swearingen SX-300 kit in 1983 and it took four and a half years to build. Mine was the first kit-built SX-300 flying. It was a pretty hot airplane in its day, and it still is! I am way over my allowance for adult toys—I’ve got an R-22, SX-300, the NXT, and a Cessna 210. I will probably sell the 210; I fly it the least.”

How long have you been flying helicopters?

“Oh, about 10 years. I’m on my second Robinson R-22. I learned at Oxnard Helicopters—they went out of business and I bought their R-22. I flew it to Alaska and back. You are never too old to have a happy childhood!”

You used to fly aerobatics?

“I flew competition aerobatics in the 1980s. I was California state champion one year in the Sportsman Class and took second place in the Nationals that same year.”

Where did you go to school?

“I started at Valley College, then took courses at UCLA and USC. I worked as a carpenter, then later went into real estate and got my broker’s license. I also worked in film. I’ve done adventure, outdoors, motorcycle, ski, and produced a couple of films, too. I have worked as a cameraman on other crews and at studios such as ABC affiliate KEYT, broadcasting out of Santa Barbara.”

How did you and Jurg Sommerauer meet?

“Klaus Savier introduced us. Jurg had worked with Klaus. He worked with me on the SX-300 we race at Reno. We hit it off right away; Jurg is a “class guy.” He’s an excellent craftsman, and most of all, he is thinking all the time, and he sticks with it.”

I understand that you and Daryl Greenamyer are the same age?

“Yes, the older you get the faster you get. You have to be fast ‘cause it’s going to be over pretty soon.”

When did you first start racing at Reno?

“In 1998 in my SX-300. I had the SX-300 when I saw an article in a magazine for the start of the Sport Class. I sent an inquiry, one thing led to another, and I registered in 1998 for the first Sport Class race. I went to the first Pylon Racing Seminar and have raced ever since. (2001 race excluded due to 9/11.)”

Both Daryl Greenamyer and John Parker qualified just under 350 mph. How fast will your NXT be?

It’s premature for us to say what speed we think we will achieve. We will run a stock factory engine—and we will not burn it up either. I don’t plan to toast it.”

What do you plan to do in the future to make the Wright Flyer more competitive?

“Nothing that we are willing to admit to right now, but we do have some ideas. Right now, we are focusing on Reno to see what needs to be done. We want to be safe the first race and see what it will take—too late this year [to modify anything]. I want to spend time flying and getting used to the airplane.”

Did you purchase the NXT’s engine or build it up?

“I originally purchased a Continental engine before Jon decided to switch to Lycoming—I had to sell it.

“We purchased this engine from Jon Sharp, engine and prop. He is the OEM for Lycoming and Hartzell respectively.” (Nemesis Air Racing supplies a Lycoming-developed TIO-540-NXT engine based on the engine it supplies to Piper for the Malibu. It is available to all NXT airframe kit buyers. This twin turbocharged engine uses two intercoolers and custom waste gates. The compression ratio is 7.5:1. In anticipation of higher horsepower requirements racers may need in the future, it uses the beefiest case, crankshaft, and connecting rods Lycoming has to offer. Each engine is broken in and dynamometer tested at the factory for five hours. A dyno sheet comes with each engine; all engines are guaranteed to produce at least 350 hp or better at 2550 rpm. Ed)

Do you think Lycoming has provided you with an engine producing horsepower equal to Jon’s?

“I think so. However, I know Jon has a cruise engine and a race engine.”

Have you run your engine on a dyno? What horsepower is your engine producing?

“No. Whatever I got from Lycoming is what I have—350 hp @ 2550 rpm at 42 inches’ manifold pressure. I have not been able to get 42 inches yet. I saw 40.5 to 41 inches. Intercoolers will reduce some manifold pressure but ram air should make up for that.”

Will you use water spray-bar cooling over cylinder heads, oil cooler, and intercoolers?

“I don’t see any need to at this time—runs cool. We may have spray bars in by Reno though.”

Will you run ADI (Anti Detonation Injection)?

We will not be running ADI this year. The engine runs cool now. Perhaps next year.”

Jon Sharp is taller and heavier than you are. Have you had to modify the NXT to accommodate your size?

“The rudder pedals have been adjusted for me and are epoxied in place. Jurg thinks they may be adjusted 2 inches max without cutting out the mounts. I have a 6-inch seat cushion that can be taken out and there is additional space behind the backrest. I think a six-foot-six footer could fit in the cockpit.

How is the instrument panel different from Jon’s?

“Well, it’s a full glass panel. It can be removed in half an hour. Simply unplug everything with quick disconnects.”

What performance have you seen so far, or expect to reach by Reno?

“I have not wrung out NXT so far. I will not push real hard at Reno; just race and find out what it will do. The A/S has read 400 mph. Final approach to land is between 100 and 120 kts—it’s a real landing”!

Did you build your NXT as a racer?

“No, my original intention was to build it as a combination racer and cross-country cruiser. I have limited it to airports I can go into—set 5,000 feet as minimum runway length.”

What does your NXT weigh compared to Jon’s 1,550-pound empty weight?

“We have weighed the airplane; it comes in at 1,607 pounds.  Jurg thinks it’s a bit heavier due to having more avionics installed. I weigh less than Jon. I am at 170 pounds versus Jon at 220, so we have a 60-pound advantage, but the difference may wash out.”

Jon added weight under the front of the engine to balance the CG. Have you done that yet?

“Not yet. Our CG is fine. Maybe with passengers, but there is no right seat yet.”

How did you train to prepare to fly the NXT?

“I grew up flying taildraggers—Pitts, Lasers, Extras. I did fly dual in an Extra at Mojave, did lots of landings…three to four hours dual. By the way, that was the same Extra used as chase plane for SpaceShipOne flights.”

Who is flying off the (FAA required) 25 hours and the 50 hours required for Reno?

“I flew off the first 25 hours prior to moving the NXT home to Santa Barbara. I am still doing a lot of flying, getting used to the airplane.”

Jon said NXT is easier to fly than his old Mooney; did you find it to be the same compared to your SX300?

(Dan chuckled a bit.) “I think this NXT is somewhere between my SX-300 and my helicopter…for me it’s a handful; the controls are very sensitive. It does not have any trim. Also my autopilot is not hooked up yet.”

Are you satisfied with the landing gear fix?

“Jurg came up with an electric flaps system and that has eliminated problems Jon had with hydraulics on flaps and landing gear. Jon also shipped us modified over-center links for the landing gear.”

George Kirsten is part of your crew?

“Yes, he lives in Santa Paula and has been with me since 1998. He has been a terrific asset! He is a very talented mechanic and craftsman.”

Who else do you think will be at Reno with an NXT?

“Kevin Eldridge will be there. He is based in San Luis Obispo, California. Kevin and Yuri are working together.”

Bad things happen to good people

After successfully completing the Pylon Racing School at Reno, Dan Wright flew to Idaho to visit his son. At the time, he had logged more than 40 flight hours on his NXT. On the return flight, Dan decided to land in Bishop, California, for fuel. The landing did not go well.

Dan was not injured but the NXT suffered substantial damage. Jurg and John Lynch later downloaded data from the airplane and have done extensive analysis to try to determine what happened. According to the data, the approach to landing and short final were normal—speeds, descent rate (100 fpm prior to TD). There were strong cross winds at the time—nothing new to Dan who grew up flying taildraggers since he was 17. Dan was on high alert to the conditions; however, everything appeared normal. Jurg suspects a wind shear close to the ground may have caused the problem.

All four of the axle bolts on both wheels sheared after the touchdown. The separated wheels and brakes bounced off into a field. The NXT skidded on its trailing links for about 1,200 feet straight down the runway before the left gear hit an expansion joint and sheared off the gear. Dan was hard on the brakes (not realizing the brakes had departed the airplane). The NXT continued sliding on the right trailing link and left wing. Amazingly enough, the fuselage was not scratched, but the prop was. It will join Jon’s in the Hartzell Hall of Fame.

There was no other external damage or damage to avionics, etc., as a result of the landing. There was internal damage to the left wing spar when the left gear leg was torn away. Jurg feels the beefy trailing link design saved Dan from more disastrous results.

“A likely scenario is that a wind shear just before touchdown led to the unfortunate landing incident. The landing speed was well within the desired range and directional control was very good. This is based on the interpretation of the downloaded flight data from the Chelton, GPS information, and wind and ground observations,” Jurg observed.

Jurg, who was at his home in Sedona, Arizona, flew to Bishop to assess the damage. “I initially cut a large inspection hole on the left top wing skin to analyze the internal damage. I thought that if there was no substantial damage, I would only have needed to replace the delaminated top skin. After surveying the situation, I determined we would have to cut both wings off so they could truck it to Santa Paula.” Tears flowed as Jurg started cutting off the wings. “It was like cutting my own child’s legs off,” he said.

Dan’s NXT is back in the hanger, repairs are being made, and a new wing is under construction. Even though Dan was sad, he assured us this NXT will soon fly again!

Epilogue: Dan and the team rebuilt the NXT and went on to race at Reno, taking 5th place in the Sport Class Gold Division!

Read more: www.wrightflyer101.com

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