What Were They Thinking?

The wonderful, unworkable world of airplane design in the years before the Wright brothers.

Alexander Graham Bell was infatuated with the tetrahedral, or four-sided, cell, but only one of his tetrahedral kites flew. (NASM)
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What the Wright brothers accomplished in four years, other would-be aeronauts had been attempting for decades. The brothers distinguished themselves by realizing that what a flying machine needed was a pilot with complete control over the machine, and a machine that would allow itself to be completely controlled. Their wing-warping biplane, the Flyer, was the  first powered airplane that enabled the pilot to control the craft’s pitch, roll, and yaw—its movements along the three axes of rotation: lateral, longitudinal, and vertical.

The brothers’ aeronautical contemporaries, however, did not have the benefit of this wisdom. Because the Wrights wanted to protect their invention by securing patents for it around the world, they initially kept their mastery of powered flight a secret. That left other designers of the day to proceed from intuition, guesses, aesthetic judgments, trust in engine power—everything but the theory of three-axis control.

The Wrights made their first official public demonstration of powered flight in 1908, at an Army Signal Corps field in Virginia. Most competing aircraft designs quickly faded into the background.

Now, a century later, they are enjoying a revival of sorts. These rarely seen photographs of early aviation’s also-rans hail from the archives of London’s Hulton Getty Picture Collection. “They had a big collection of aviation pictures sitting in a back room, covered with dust,” says Peter Almond. “Someone said, ‘Gee, look at all these pictures—let’s put a book together.’ ” The result: The Hulton Getty Picture Collection—Aviation: The Early Years, with text by Almond (Könemann, 1997). The book has the feeling of a family photo album—only with pictures of all the relatives no one talks about.

The World’s First Lifting Body

In 1884 and again in 1891, British inventor Horatio Phillips tested a variety of wing sections in an early wind tunnel, in which he used steam to study the movement of air along various surfaces. “The particles of air struck by the convex upper surface...are deflected upward...thereby causing a partial vacuum over the greater portion of the upper surface,” he wrote. And thus Phillips happened on to the principle behind every successful wing: Air flowing over a curved top surface moves faster—and thus has lower pressure—than air flowing against a wing’s flat bottom. It’s this difference in pressures that produces lift. Had he left it at that, Phillips would have been remembered as having made a great contribution to aeronautical science. But he insisted on trying to build a flying machine.

In 1893 he designed a craft with 50 slats (hence the name “multiplane”). Presumably, he was hoping all those planes would produce lift in abundance. The frame measured 22 feet long and only 1.5 inches wide; the machine was powered by a coal-fired engine that turned the propeller at 400 revolutions per minute. The whole thing looked like a flying Venetian blind.

In 1892, Phillips managed to get the multiplane aloft for part of a lap over a circular track. That wasn’t enough to impress fellow aeronaut and designer Octave Chanute, who wrote in his 1894 classic Progress in Flying Machines: “Mr. Phillips’s experimental machine neglects any provisions for maintaining equilibrium in full flight, or for arising and alighting safely.”

A 1907 design, which bore four frames with 200 tiny planes, flew some 500 feet; no word on how the version shown here, a 1911 single-frame machine, performed. Probably not impressively; the Venetian-blind airfoil is not one that designers have returned to often in the years since.

The Mechanical Albatross

French sea captain Jean-Marie Le Bris marveled at the sight of albatrosses effortlessly flitting about above his ship, so he killed one. He wrote later: “I took the wing of the albatross and exposed it to the breeze; and lo! in spite of me it drew forward into the wind; notwithstanding my resistance it tended to rise. Thus I had discovered the secret of the bird!” Upon returning to France, Le Bris constructed what was essentially an albatross big enough to hold a man. It was just over 13 feet long and had a 50-foot wing. There was no undercarriage, just a canoe-shaped wood hull where Le Bris intended to stand while piloting the glider. “An ingenious arrangement…worked by two powerful levers, imparted a rotary motion to the front edge of the wings, and also permitted their adjustments to various angles of incidence with the wind,” wrote Octave Chanute. These controls apparently were to have provided pitch control. Le Bris also designed a hinged tail for steering, both vertically and horizontally.

Le Bris first attempted a flight in 1857. He tied the albatross to a horse-drawn cart; when the driver urged the horse into a gallop, LeBris untied the knot and the albatross leapt skyward, lifted by its wings. Unfortunately, the rope wound around the cart’s driver and pulled him into the air. Le Bris managed to gently lower the driver to the ground unhurt, but he also crumpled a wing. On his next attempt, which he made from the edge of a precipice, “the apparatus...oscillated upward, and then took a second downward dip” and fell to the bottom of the pit, reported Chanute. In the crash, Le Bris broke a leg, and his glider was destroyed.

In 1867 he built another, much like the first, though a bit lighter and with a counterweight inside that was supposed to move automatically to provide equilibrium; if the craft pitched downward, for instance, the counterweight would move backward to compensate. On the glider’s one piloted flight Le Bris flew perhaps 75 feet; on its final flight, the glider rose from a hill, then dove toward the ground, smashing to bits.

“Le Bris had made a very earnest, and, upon the whole, a fairly intelligent effort to compass sailing flight by imitating birds,” Chanute wrote, but the designer failed to solve the problem of maintaining longitudinal equilibrium. In addition, says Peter Jakab, a curator of early flight at the National Air and Space Museum, “There wasn’t any calculation of lift and drag and those sorts of things.”

The Adventures of Batman

Clement Ader’s aircraft owed their shape to the bat. And because bats don’t need tails, Ader found very little use for one either. But he must have believed storage was important, because his first, the Eole, could fan-fold its graceful 54-foot wing.

The craft was supposed to make its maiden flight in 1890 over the secluded Parc d’Armainvillers grounds in France, powered by a 20-horsepower steam engine. “An area was laid out in a straight line unturfed, beaten and leveled with a roller,” Ader wrote six years later, “so that one could see and record the traces of the wheels from the slightest lift to complete takeoff.” The ride was wild: 164 feet from start to finish, and just inches above the ground.

Ader convinced the French War Ministry that he could build a bigger and better flying machine; nearly six years later, the Avion III debuted. It was powered by two steam engines (the Eole’s single powerplant had created destabilizing torque), and it had a wingspan of 60 feet. Much like a bat, it was all wing and no tail. Ader sat behind the engines without a clear view of what lay ahead, though he did have some control over the wings: Hand cranks could change their angle of incidence—albeit too slowly to do much good.

Did the Avion III actually fly? Ader claims it did, but some historians doubt it. Here’s the story according to the book The Road to Kitty Hawk by Valerie Moolman: In 1897, with two generals observing at the circular track at Camp Satory near Versailles, Ader climbed into the machine, started its engines, and took off, with the wind blowing from behind. The machine was suddenly airborne, and Ader, fighting to stay inside the track’s perimeter, steered to the left. But the wind blew him to the right. Ader cut the power and landed hard. It’s not clear whether the machine had been propelled by its engines or by the wind. In any case, it was so damaged that further tests were postponed indefinitely, and the War Ministry halted funding.

Years later, Wilbur Wright hailed Ader as a pioneer of flight, but in 1910 he wrote a letter to the editor of Aircraft magazine clarifying his position. “[T]he Ader machine had…quite failed to solve the problem of equilibrium,” he noted. And, of course, the pilot had made the grievous error of trying to take off downwind.

Flexible Flier

In 1894, Sir Hiram Maxim, an American inventor living in Britain who gave us the machine gun, a telegraph, several systems of lighting, and more than 260 other inventions, put the finishing touches on an aerial brainstorm, which he called the “kite of war.” It was a huge biplane: some 4,000 square feet of wing surface area and weighing an astounding 8,000 pounds. Maxim gave it two engines, one on the right side and the other on the left, because he had a theory about flight control. He believed he could steer his machine to the right or the left “by running one of the propellers faster than the other.” The difference in power was supposed to yaw the craft.

On July 31, Maxim prepared to test his great kite. He had constructed a track with an iron rail on which the machine’s four wheels would sit. The vehicle was to take off down the track like a winged sled; as it gained speed, its crew would attempt to raise it off the rail by use of its “fore and aft horizontal rudders.” The track also had  a wood guardrail that was to keep the craft from climbing too high.

With three crewmen onboard, the machine lurched upward. And then it kept going, until it had it snapped right through the upper guardrail. Maxim cut power and the kite settled down, one of its propellers cracked from hitting the wood railing. The flight had ended before Maxim had been able to test his theory about steering.

“Maxim spent 30,000 pounds, and his contribution to aviation was virtually nil,” says Peter Almond, who nonetheless decided to include Maxim’s machine in the Hulton Getty book: “I took a slightly generous view of him because of the sheer chronology,” he explains. “He did this in 1894, before anyone else had done any of it.”

A Strange Duck

Alberto Santos-Dumont, son of a wealthy Brazilian, used his money to experiment with flying machines. Following the lead of Gabriel Voisin, who in July 1905 managed to get himself towed aloft in a glider dragged behind a racing boat, Santos-Dumont envisioned on of his dirigibles, No. 14, dragging an airplane, 14 bis (“bis” being French for “II,” or “the second”], into the air. He had mechanics build a light frame of pine and bamboo, with wings that swept upward—behind the operator, who stood in the cockpit facing the boxy elevator. An Antoinette engine turned the four-blade aluminum pusher propeller behind the pilot.

Though Santos-Dumont thought the craft resembled a bird of prey, most  observers thought the elevator looked like a duck’s head sticking out in flight, and called the machine canard, French for “duck.”

In September 1906, Santos-Dumont, now using an engine powerful enough to obviate the need for a dirigible launch, managed to hop 23 to 43 feet (different observers gave different estimates). The following month, before a crowd that included members of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, formed the year before to keep aviation records, Santos-Dumont stood at the controls, advanced the throttle, and lifted off, flying 197 feet before touching ground again. It was the first official, public flight of an airplane in Europe.

The Wrights acted unimpressed. “If he had gone more than 300 ft. he has really done something; less than this is nothing,” Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute.

Though Santos-Dumont devised an elevator similar to the Wrights’, in general, the designer “didn’t develop [14 bis] in the same way that the Wrights developed theirs, based upon lift and drag,” notes curator Peter Jakab. “That’s the thing that separates the Wrights. The Flyer was truly an engineered aircraft.”

Santos-Dumont was back in the air in 1909 at the Reims Meet in France with his Demoiselle, a more Wright-like monoplane that flew but set no records. Suffering from multiple sclerosis, he committed suicide in 1932 at the age of 59.

The Angular Swan

Alexander Graham Bell grew interested in flying machines while watching his friend Samuel Langley experiment with his Aerodromes in the last decade of the 19th century. In 1907 Bell formed the Aerial Experiment Association with a handful of young men, including Glenn Curtiss, with the intent of getting into the air as soon as possible.

Bell was a big believer in the four-sided triangular cell—the tetrahedron. Such a cell possesses, he wrote, “qualities of strength and lightness in an extraordinary degree. It is not simply braced in two directions in space like a triangle, but in three directions like a solid….” Using hundreds of fabric tetrahedrons, he constructed huge craft he called Cygnets, or Swans.

In 1907, AEA member Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge flew the first one from Bras d’Or Lake near Bell’s summer home in Nova Scotia. It was towed behind a steamer. It had no controls, and after it landed was dragged apart. Bell completed his Cygnet II within two years; this one had a triangular “wing,” weighed some 900 pounds, and rested on runners; the pilot sat behind the biplane elevator and in front of a pusher engine with a 10-foot propeller.

Despite three tries that February, the Cygnet II remained firmly adhered to terra firma. What kept it there? “Drag,” says Tom Crouch, an early-aviation curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “What works for a kite doesn’t work for an airplane.”

Been Too Long at the Fair

The Marquis d’Ecquevilly was a French naval engineer who got into the aviation field in 1907 with his strange and beautiful multiplane, about which little has been written. He started with a four-wheel platform on which the pilot stood, upon which he mounted a pair of oval hoops 16 feet across, which in turn acted as a frame for the five pairs of fairly flat wings. Two more wings were mounted on top of the pairs. The wings’ inboard sides were attached to a frame of five more ovals, and the engine—a 10-horsepower Buchet—was mounted on a pair of (what else?) circular frames. In the January 1909 issue of Aerophile, the Marquis likened the craft’s construction to “that of the big Ferris wheel of the [Paris Universal] Exhibition of 1900.”

There was no tail nor any control surfaces to speak of. Indeed, as the Marquis himself wrote, “It would be premature to speculate on how this machine would be controlled, insofar as its dynamic stability is so much more longitudinal than lateral.” There is also no record of its having flown, either before the June 1908 fire that damaged it or afterward, when the Marquis rebuilt it with 50 smaller wings. (Perhaps he had the same idea as Horatio Phillips: more planes, more lift, and worry about control later.)

It would be unfair to say all of these designs were losers. Some actually flew, and did so before the Wright brothers’ Flyer. A few even made tentative steps toward control. But Wilbur didn’t seem threatened by his competition. “From our knowledge of the subject,” he wrote to Chanute, “we estimate that it is possible to jump about 250 ft., with a machine that has not made the first steps toward controllability and which is quite unable to maintain the motive force necessary for flight. By getting up good speed a machine can be made to rise with very little power, and can proceed several hundred feet before its momentum is exhausted....”

While the Wrights were—well—right, their machine was a pretty sober affair. The designs of the pre-Wright era have a boldness and extravagance that make them easy to like and root for, however futilely. And maybe that’s instructive in its own right.

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