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 4 of 6)
Vlaicu traveled to the Paris workshop of fellow Romanian Trajan Vuia to buy a 50-hp Gnome engine. By June 1910 he had produced Vlaicu 1, taking flight from Romania’s Cotroceni military airfield. Vlaicu called his design a “flying machine with an arrow-like fuselage.” The aircraft had a diamond-shape cockpit that hung like a pendulum beneath the fir wing spars. It had a hinged front elevator and rudders that moved in tandem. There were propellers in both the front and rear, and a fixed rear horizontal tail with two vertical control surfaces straddling the central aluminum tube, an arrangement that ensured stability and smooth turns.
By mid-August 1910 Vlaicu could make sharp turns and exceed an altitude of 450 feet, and one of his flights surpassed nine miles. Within six weeks, in a test of army reconnaissance, he had risen above 1,500 feet, winning a prize from Romanian Prince Ferdinand that funded the launch of his Vlaicu 2 the following February. This aircraft was a monoplane of a parasol design, with fabric on just the top of the wings and tail and without ribs— features that made the aircraft light and nimble.
Another designer who borrowed liberally from fellow aircraft designers, José Luis Sanchez-Besa copied the Wrights’ pusher propulsion and the Voisin brothers’ designs. His 1910 biplane was full of curves, with a front elevator and a 50-hp Anzani chain-drive engine linked to two pusher props. He created a number of successful aircraft, for both land- and sea-based operations.
His 1912-1913 seaplane wrapped the pilot in a virtual tub, yet a land-based version was aerodynamic enough to work. Perhaps his most ambitious design had a Venetian-blind-like configuration of airfoils: five rows of 21 horizontal surfaces each.
William Wallace Gibson made his money in mining, and in 1906 he began to invest in manufacturing engines. However, Gibson’s propulsion efforts were marred. His four-cylinder engine shook itself to an early death. He had slightly better luck with a six-cylinder design, which in early 1910 yielded a smooth 60 hp. Next Gibson turned to an airframe. He sewed two 20-foot wings of silk staggered front and rear, and for pilot control used wires to tether a front elevator to his shoulder harness. On September 8, 1910, at a farm in Victoria, British Columbia, he managed to fly his 700-pound Twinplane 25 feet.
His second flight, on September 24, lasted 200 feet before a crosswind slammed him into an oak, crushing all but his engine and his spirit. By mid-1911 Gibson had fitted the same engine to a frame of four sprucewood wings, creating the
Multiplane. This aircraft was now controlled by foot rudders. But in one of aviation’s first examples of sponsor trouble, Gibson was grounded after a dispute with a promoter. In August 1911, Gibson’s assistant flew nearly one mile in Calgary before crashing the aircraft to splinters, ending Gibson’s interest in flight.
In the autumn of 1910, Frederick (“Frits”) Koolhoven, an engineer and race car driver, and Henri Wijnmalen, a former student of medicine, delivered what was hailed as the first all-Dutch aircraft: the Heidevogel (Heatherbird). A Dutch car dealer established a subsidiary to stage test flights by the pair (and, one assumes, draw potential car buyers). The Heidevogel turned out to be a near-exact copy of a Henri Farman biplane. The records on this airplane are scarce, but at least one photograph shows it flying.
Roger A. Mola is an Air & Space researcher.