The Birthplaces of Aviation
It didn't all happen at Kitty Hawk.
- By Roger A. Mola
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
Ferguson Family Museum, Freshwater, Isle of Wight
In the story of the airplane’s invention, there are more characters than just the Wright brothers. And more settings too: In the first decade after the Wrights’ landmark 1903 flight, airplanes were being invented in countries far beyond America and the other two hotspots of early aviation: France and England.
Many of the aircraft included here were the first to fly in their countries. Though big news locally, word of their success traveled very slowly. The 1912 edition of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft says, regarding Chile’s efforts in aviation, “There are vague rumors of machines building in Chili [sic], but so far as can be discovered, none have got beyond the model stage.” Though that was technically true, a Chilean named José Luis Sanchez-Besa, living in France, was building both land- and seaplanes.
Many of the aircraft builders in this story clearly got ideas from fellow inventors; a few of these designs are close duplicates of successful forebears. But other inventors appear to have worked in isolation, largely unaware of other airplanes springing to life around the world. Besides the Wrights’ crisp, sensible designs, the world began seeing airplanes with more exotic or eccentric appearances—and some could even fly.
Though Trajan Vuia earned a doctorate in law in 1901, between scholastic assignments he sketched airplane designs. He moved to Paris to join what he considered the hub of the aviation community, and in February 1903 he offered a design to the Committee of Aeronautics of the Science Academy. The committee, adhering to the prevailing wisdom that the best design would be a double-prop biplane, rejected his single-propeller monoplane as a dream.
Still, that August, Vuia licensed his airframe design in France, and the next year licensed another design incorporating his 20-horsepower engine in Great Britain. He completed the full machine by December 1905.
That month, outside Paris and beyond the view of journalists, Vuia began maneuvering the body of his vehicle as a car; later he added wings and practiced faster taxiing.
While the first officially observed airplane flight in Europe was made by Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont in Paris on October 23, 1906, according to some reports, on March 18 of that year, Vuia rolled the Trajan Vuia 1 for 150 feet, lifted three feet above the dirt, and flew for 36 feet. Then his engine quit. Vuia is reported to have flown again in June, July, and August.
Like the Wright brothers, Hans Grade was schooled in the mechanics of two-wheel vehicles. He built his first motorcycle in 1903, and in 1905 founded a shop in Magdeburg, Germany, where he tinkered simultaneously with aircraft design and motorcycles.
By 1907 he had finalized a concept for a triplane. On October 28, 1908, his aircraft flew 24 feet. The following August, his monoplane, named Libelle (dragonfly) and based on Santos Dumont’s Demoiselle—began hops from Borkheide.