Experts on Tour - Dr. Robert L. Ash

Uncovering the Secrets of the Wright Brothers

One hundred years ago, Wilbur and Orville Wright became convinced that they had the knowledge and where-with-all needed to build and fly the world's first powered and controlled flying machine. Their three glider campaigns in Kitty Hawk, NC, combined with their theoretical studies and wind tunnel testing in Dayton, OH, left them with a reasonably efficient aerodynamic and structural configuration incorporating an effective three-dimensional control system. In addition, they had acquired considerable skill as pilots, and gained the confidence needed to embolden them to attempt their ultimate goal. The only remaining important challenges were to obtain an engine with good power-to-weight ratio and to find propellers that were efficient in converting shaft power to thrust. Neither of their remaining problems was as simple to overcome as they had assumed.

By early 1903, they had built and tested their own four-cylinder (4 1/8 in. bore and 4 in. stroke-check) engine and found that it produced almost 16 horsepower immediately after a cold start, decreasing to a near steady-state output of 12 horsepower. They assumed that the mystery of propeller design had been solved by the shipbuilding industry, since screw propellers had been used on steam-powered ships for more than 50 years. They soon discovered that a technological breakthrough in propeller design was required if they were to achieve powered flight with their existing airplane structures and power plant.

This talk will discuss the pioneering accomplishments of Wilbur and Orville Wright in designing the world's first powered and controlled flying machine. Their design of efficient airplane propellers has been largely overlooked. We will discuss how The Wright Experience has carefully recreated the original propeller designs and how the wind tunnel testing program at Old Dominion University is beginning to document the extraordinary achievements of Wilbur and Orville Wright in the design and construction of efficient airplane propellers.


Education: Ph.D. (Mechanical Engineering), Tulane University, 1968; M.S. Tulane University, 1966; B.S.M.E., Kansas State University, 1963.

Research Areas: Space Systems, Thermal Physics, Fluid Mechanics and Heat Transfer.

Professional Experience: Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Old Dominion University, 1994-Present; Assistant Professor, 1967-1970, Associate Professor, 1970-1976, Professor, 1976-Present, Eminent Professor/Eminent Scholar 1987-Present. Interim Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies Old Dominion University, 2001-Present.

Associate Vice President for Research for Research, Economic Development and Graduate Studies, Old Dominion University, 1995-1999.

Visiting Distinguished Research Engineer, NASA Langley Research Center, 1992-1993.

Chairman, Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics Department, Old Dominion University, 1984-1993.

Acting Dean of Engineering, Old Dominion University, 1983-1984.

National Research Council, Senior Resident Research Associate, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, 1977-1979.

Professional Societies and Activities: National Research Council, Space Studies Board, Committee on Microgravity Research, 1996-1999; AIAA, Associate Fellow, Atmospheric Environment Technical Committee 1995-Present, Thermophysics Technical Committee, 1995-1998; ASME, Faculty Advisor, Old Dominion University Student Chapter, 1980-1981; Member, American Society for Engineering Education, SAE International, and National Society of Professional Engineers; Co-authored original proposal and member of the Virginia Space Grant Consortium Advisory Committee 1989-Present, (Chaired Advisory Board 1992-1996); Board of Advisors, NASA Center for the Utilization of Local Planetary Resources, University of Arizona, 1988-1994 (Chaired Advisory Board 1993-1994); Registered Professional, Commonwealth of Virginia, since 1976; Principal Investigator on Research Grants totaling more than $3-million.

Awards and Honors: NASA Group Achievement Awards: 1983 (Turbulent Drag Reduction), 1996 (Student Balloon Project); Virginia Society of Professional Engineers, Pletta Medal as Outstanding Engineering Faculty Member in Virginia, 1993; Old Dominion University, Outstanding Teaching Awards, College of Engineering: 1970 and 1972, Outstanding Mechanical Engineering Professor: 1972, 1975, 1980, 1982, and 1989; Professional Engineer of the Year in Tidewater, Virginia, 1990; Who's Who in Engineering, Phi Kappa Phi, Pi Tau sigma, Sigma Tau, Sigma Xi, Tau Beta Pi; Charles T. Main Award of ASME, 1963; NASA Technical Briefs: 1977, 1980, 1983, and 1995.

Selected Recent Publications: Miley, S.J., Ash, R.L., Hyde, K.W., Landman, D., and Sparks, A.K., 2002, "Propeller Performance Tests of Wright Brothers' 'Bent End' Propellers", Journal of Aircraft, Vol 39, No.2, pp. 234-241. Landman, D., Blackburn, S., Ash, R.L. and Hyde, K.W., "Wind Tunnel Testing of the Wright Brothers' Model B Airfoil", Journal of Aircraft, 2002, Vol. 39, No 1, pp. 30-36. Ash, R.L., Miley, S.J., Landman, D., and Hyde, K.W., 2001, "Evolution of Wright Flyer Propellers between 1903 and 1912", presented at the 39th AIAA Aerospace Sciences Meeting, Reno, NV, January, 2001, AIAA Paper No. 2001-0309. Numerical Simulations of Commercial Aircraft Wakes Subjected to Airport Surface Weather Conditions, Journal of Aircraft, Vol. 35, pp. 18-26, 1998.

Dr. Ash requires a minimum of 30 days lead-time to present at your section activity. Additionally, he will be able to do only 6 speaking engagements.