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)
Air & Space Magazine

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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.

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