On February 13th our Chairman, Chris Roberts, standing in for Lt Cdr Chris Goetke, entertained Members with his comprehensively illustrated personal take on aviation pioneers. He had this talk in stock from his days as a lecturer on cruise ships including the Queen Mary - nice work if you can get it!

In 478 BC, Chinese philosopher Mo Zi spent three years building a wooden Hawk kite, or Fen Zheng in Chinese. In 200 BC General Han Hsin flew a kite above a fort he was attacking to measure tunnelling distances.

In Europe, Lenardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) drew a number of flying machines including a man powered ornithopter, a flapping wing device; none were built or flown.

Joseph Montgolfier (1740 – 1810) and his brother Jacques (1745 - 1799) were paper manufacturers in France, and became famous as inventors of the Montgolfier-style hot air balloon. They launched their first unmanned balloon on the 4th June 1783. The first living creatures to fly were a sheep, a rooster and a duck in a larger balloon on 11th September; the landing was safe and the animals survived. The brothers then built a more elaborate and much larger balloon in which Etienne became the first man to rise from the surface of the earth reaching a height of 80 ft, the length of the tether, in October. The first free flight was on 2nd November when Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes made a 25 minute flight near Paris.

From Kites To Thunderbirds

Toptop toptoptoptoptoptop top

Jacques Charles pioneered the hydrogen balloon, his first being launched on 21st August 1783 with the first manned flight by Charles and Nicolas Robert on December 1st. Charles went on to conceive the dirigible (steerable) balloon.

Moving on to fluid dynamics Chris cited Daniel Bernoulli (1700 - 1782), a Swiss mathematician whose ‘principal’, that in a moving stream of fluid static pressure plus dynamic pressure is a constant, is the foundation of theoretical aerodynamics and explains how a wing develops lift.

English aristocrat Sir George Cayley (1773 - 1857), a prolific inventor and the ‘father of aeronautics’, was the first scientific aerial investigator. He was the first man to understand and state the forces on a body moving through the air: thrust, drag, lift and weight, to realise the importance of stability and control, to conceive the aerofoil section and to devise the modern configuration of fuselage, wing and tailplane. He designed and built a steerable glider incorporating these principles. In 1849, near Scarborough, it was launched downhill with his coachman on board, becoming the first manned heavier-than air machine to fly.

German engineer Otto Lilienthal (1848 - 1896) studied bird flight, built a series of ‘hang gliders’ and was acknowledged as the first successful aviator before he was killed in 1896 in a crash.

Samuel Langley (1893 - 1903), a prominent American scientist and astronomer, successfully flew a number of tandem wing models and his attempts to fly the full scale internal combustion powered, somewhat fragile, ‘Aerodrome’, from a pontoon in the Potomac River, almost succeeded in the hands of pilot Charles Manley. However, it crashed into the river immediately after being launched. The US War Department had spent $50,000 on the project.

American civil engineer, Octave Chanute (1832 - 1910), became interested in aeronautics and compiled a valuable compendium of all aviation research to date, ‘Progress in Flying Machines’. He designed and built a number of biplane hang gliders and a 12 winged version. He inspired the Wright brothers and was a great teacher and helper of pioneer aviators.

Next came the Wright brothers, Orville (1871 - 1948) and Wilbur (1867 - 1912), bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio, USA who were the first to design and build a powered, manned, aeroplane capable of prolonged, sustained, controlled flight. Their work was underpinned by research using their own wind tunnel; they designed proper propellers and a light-weight piston engine. They built and flew a number of biplane kites and gliders, beginning in 1900, and developed the wing warping method of roll control which in conjunction with rudders and elevators provided three axis control. Their experimental work culminated in the ‘Wright Flyer I’ which on December 17th 1903, with Orville aboard, made an historic 12 second flight of 120 ft.

In Europe, Alberto Santos Dumont, a Brazilian living in Paris, was successfully building and flying balloons and dirigibles. He turned to aeroplane design and on October 23rd 1906, in his canard biplane ‘14 bis’, made the first powered heavier than air flight in Europe. In 1908 his tiny ‘Demoiselle’ monoplane was the first production aircraft being sold already built or as construction plans.

The first man to fly a heavier than air machine in England was American born rodeo performer, Samuel Cody (1867 - 1913). Starting as a military kite builder he progressed to his ‘British Army Aeroplane No 1’ which he first flew on October 16th 1908, at Farnborough.

In France Louis Bleriot (1872 - 1936), from 1907 designed and developed successful monoplanes in one of which he flew across the English Channel in 1909.

In May 1919 the first flight across the Atlantic was made by the US Navy Curtiss NC4 seaplane with 21ships marking the route from Newfoundland to the Azores. NCs 1, 3 and 4 had set out from Newfoundland but only NC4 made it to the Azores and on to Lisbon in Portugal. The first non-stop Transatlantic flight, from Newfoundland to Ireland, was made by Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten-Brown in June 1919 in a Vickers Vimy. In May 20th 1932, American aviatrix Amelia Earheart made the first solo Transatlantic flight by a woman from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland, in her Lockheed Vega 5B.

In 1927 Frank Whittle produced his theory for jet propulsion by a gas turbine engine but it took six years for his ideas to be accepted by the British ‘establishment’. Nevertheless he ran his first engine on April 12th 1937. The event nearly ended in disaster as the engine ran away, overspeeding, but prompt action by Whittle saved the situation. The engine was flight tested in the tail of a Wellington and powered Britain’s first jet aircraft, the Gloster E28.39, which flew on May 15th 1941. This led directly to Gloster’s Meteor, the RAF’s first jet fighter.

The first manned supersonic flight was by the USAF’s experimental rocket powered Bell X-1 on October 14th 1947, flown Captain ‘Chuck’ Yeager and launched from a Boeing B-29 bomber. The design was based on the shape of a bullet, which was known to be stable at supersonic speeds, with thin, straight wings. In Britain the Miles M.52 project for a Whittle jet powered supersonic aircraft was cancelled by the Government but its design features, including the innovative all-moving slab tailplane designed to provide adequate pitch control at supersonic speeds where conventional elevators would be ineffective behind the shock wave, were passed to Bell.

Again in America, aviator, aircraft company founder, industrialist and film producer, Howard Hughes, built the world’s largest aircraft, his eight engined, wooden H-4 Hercules flying boat, nick named the ’Spruce Goose’. It was designed to carry 750 troops or two Sherman tanks, had a wing span of 320 ft and was 219 ft long (the A380-800 has a span of 261 ft and a length of 238 ft). To get paid for by the Government the H-4 had to fly so on November 2nd 1947 Hughes took off from Long Beach harbour and flew for one mile, the H-4’s only flight.

To avoid Company bureaucracy Kelly Johnson set up his flexible and quick reacting ‘Skunk Works’ cell within the Lockheed organisation to quickly design and build. He produced the XP-80, America’s first really successful jet fighter, taking just 21 weeks from start to first flight. Other notable Skunk Works aircraft included the high flying U2 ‘spy plane’ and its strategic reconnaissance successor, the stealthy SR71 which flew in 1964. This was and still is the fastest production aircraft ever, cruising at Mach 3.2 and 80,000 ft, well out of reach of Soviet defences. It was powered by two Pratt & Whitney J58 engines burning smokeless JP7 fuel.

Project Mercury was America’s first manned space flight programme in which six astronauts flew earth orbits in a McDonnell capsule. Alan Shepard was the first to fly on May 5th 1961 (being pipped at the post by Russian Yuri Gagarin on April 12th), then came Virgil (Gus) Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Walter Shirra and Gordon Cooper. Their exploits were the subject of Tom Wolfe’s book ‘The Right Stuff’ (later a film) and the names of five of the astronauts were immortalised in Jerry Anderson’s TV puppet series ‘Thunderbirds’ where Alan, Virgil, John, Scott and Gordon were principal characters……..So….kites to Thunderbirds!