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
(Page 2 of 6)
In October 1909, Grade won 40,000 marks in a competition seeking the first German airplane with a German engine to complete a figure eight of three kilometers. Within a month, he could fly Libelle nonstop for 55 minutes, seated in chariot position and warping the wings by grasping overhead wires.
Defying the overall storyline of aviation history, Armand and Henri Dufaux first gained fame as helicopter designers, delivering partially working models and running engine demonstrations as early as May 1905. Only then did they turn to fixed-wing design. The brothers’ first prototype, the Dufaux 1, was shown off in Geneva and Paris, and led to a series of designs culminating in a 1908 triplane, which was to function as a tilt-rotor, with an engine that could pivot to provide either vertical or horizontal thrust. Brilliantly advanced, it never left the ground.
Taking great liberties in designing his biplane in 1909, Baron Pierre de Caters studied the type III airplane of French designer Henri Farman and copied nearly every pulley and screw.
The following year, de Caters devised a sturdier monoplane with a front-mounted, 100-horsepower Argus engine and a 45-foot wingspan. The aircraft required quite a bit of muscle to fly. The baron grunted through turns he executed via wing warp pulleys anchored to the wheel struts, and a rudder bar responded to stomps of his foot.
In another example of aero-appropriation, Harry George Ferguson and Joe, his brother and partner in an automotive garage, would visit air exhibitions in France and England and take careful measurements of the parked aircraft. Throughout 1909 Harry fashioned his own airplane with 26-foot wings, pairing it with an air-cooled 35-hp engine by J.A. Prestwich. At Hillsborough Park in Belfast on New Year’s Eve 1909, Ferguson’s 32-foot monoplane achieved a maximum altitude of 12 feet; it stayed aloft for some 400 feet. The Belfast Telegraph reported: “The roar of the eight cylinders was like the sound of a Gatling gun in action. The machine was set against the wind, [and] the splendid pull of the new propeller swept the big aeroplane along as Mr. Ferguson advanced the lever…. Although fierce gusts of wind made the machine wobble a little, twice the navigator steadied her by bringing her head to wind, the first successful initial flight that has ever been attempted upon an aeroplane.” Well, the first in Ireland, anyway.
Two of the world’s earliest journals devoted exclusively to aviation, Aero News and the professional journal Aeronaut, served as inspiration for young readers and would-be designers Janos Adorjan and F. Dedics. The two jointly designed a 25-hp, two-cylinder engine, which was built by the Köhler Brothers factory to power an elegant design named the Strucc (Ostrich). At 617 pounds, the Strucc had a wingspan of 26 feet, three inches, and was 24 feet long. In the Second International Air Race, held in June 1910, Adorjan became the first Hungarian to fly in his country in his own design. There were 29 competitors; the Strucc came in third.
Who made the first flight in New Zealand? Herbert J. Pither swore to journalists that he did, on July 5, 1910, at remote Oreti Beach, with no witnesses present. Yet Rosemarie Smith, who spent years researching Pither for the Croydon Aviation Heritage Trust, said Pither never repeated his original statement, and late in life—by which time the legend had grown to include multiple flights at lofty heights—he denied it altogether.
We do know that Pither was a bicycle-frame maker with a shop specializing in boat engines, so he had expertise in both framing and propulsion to use in constructing an airplane. He produced a variant of a design by Frenchman Louis Blériot, making a frame of steel tube and wooden ribs and covering it with fabric. The pilot would control yaw with a tail rudder connected to a foot pedal, achieve lateral stability by warping the trailing edges of the wings with a steering wheel, and control the craft vertically by raising or lowering the elevator with a lever. Pither fitted bicycle wheels with shock absorbers to the undercarriage, and powered the craft with a four-cylinder, 40-hp engine.