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The Art of Flying.

By W.E. Garrett Fisher

“AS TO THE INVENTORS of flying machines,” it has been said, “they must look mainly to posthumous glory as the reward of their labours; their contemporaries will know them as men who spent their fortunes and broke their necks.”


Percy S. Pilcher preparing to take off, September 1899.

Percy S. Pilcher preparing to take off, September 1899.

It may be hoped that this rather cynical statement is no longer entirely true. Yet the announcement of the sad death of Mr. Percy S. Pilcher, from an accident to his artificial wings on the 20th of September, was probably the first intimation that people at large had of his experiments. They are highly characteristic, however, of the new departure which has been taken by the art of flight in the last ten years.

“The man in the street” seems to have been surprised to learn that flight is now actually possible, although students of aeronautics were less startled by Mr. Pilcher’s partial success than grieved by his fate. As to that, one need only say here, that it affords a new illustration of the risky nature of the undertaking in which he perished, and of the need for all possible precautions.

Otto Lilienthal, who also sealed his devotion to the conquest of the air with his life three years ago, frequently pointed out the necessity to do nothing rashly in a pursuit so hedged about with danger to the hasty. It was the irony of fate that he perished, as Mr. Pilcher seems to have done, through neglect of his own salutary advice. Lilienthal’s wings gave way in a squall for lack of being kept in thorough repair. Mr. Pilcher fell a victim, it seems, to his amiable desire not to disappoint the crowds which had gathered to see him on the wing, although the day was most unsuitable for his adventure.

Even with the greatest care, the search after means of human flight must be moderately dangerous, and no praise can be too high for the self-sacrificing courage of those who engage in it, like Lilienthal and Mr. Pilcher, at the price of their lives. It is only fair that people in general, for whose sake these bold experimenters have dared and died, should spare a little while from wars and rumours of war to consider the present position of that struggle for the conquest of the air which has been vaguely envisaged by man for twenty centuries, and is now at last beginning to move forward and to repay its tale of victims with a steady gain of knowledge.

Early attempts to master the art of flying have an interest which is rather historical than scientific. If all that has been written on the subject before the Victorian Era were blotten out, that aeronaut would suffer no appreciable loss. It must be understood, of course, that, by flying, one here means travelling through the air in a direction chosen at will, so that ordinary ballooning is excluded from what might otherwise be too sweeping a statement. Still it is of interest to notice how many men have striven in past ages to solve the problem of flight. We are too apt to think that this was first brought into notice as a result of the invention of balloons, little more than a hundred years ago, and that the experiments of Mr. Maxim, Professor Langley and Mr. Hargrave, of Otto Lilienthal, Mr. Pilcher and Mr. Chanute, represent a later development. As a matter of fact, the case is quite the reverse.

For at least two thousand years men have longer to “the wings of a dove,” and have dreamed of flying in a fashion not very dissimilar to that of the modern aeroplane-builder. The balloon, though it is so much better known to us all by reason of its successful ascents, is an accidental break in the succession from Daedalus to Lilienthal, and a sound authority has even expressed the opinion that its discovery has been rather a hindrance than a help to the study of aeronautics, as drawing off men’s minds from the lines on which alone is full success to be found.

Aryan mythology contains enough stories of flying men to show how fondly the dream was cherished. It may have been handed down from the Probably Arboreal ancestor whose airy gambols amongst the tree-tops must have seemed only one remove distant from actual flight; more likely it was derived, as Lilienthal says of his passion for wings, from watching the aerial switchback of storks, and the “large birds of prey.” The only story germane to the present enquiry is that of Daedalus, the first to whom the manufacture of artificial wings in Europe is attributed. It must be admitted that this myth has been rationalised: as Sir Thomas Browne quaintly puts it, “’Twas ground enough to fancy wings unto Daedalus, in that he stole out of a window from Minos, and sailed away with his so Icarus; who, steering his course wisely, escaped, but his son, carrying to high a sail, was drowned.” In any event, we can hardly attach scientific value to the wax-fastened wings of Daedalus, any more than to the representation of a winged man, singularly like Lilienthal in his apparatus, upon an Egyptian bas-relief, or to the description in the Arabian Nights of

The wondrous horse of brass

On which the Tartar king did ride.

Our English story of King Bladud’s flight over his capital, with its unlucky termination, or the legend of the equally unsuccessful flight of Simon the Magician, may be dismissed, with “many others more,” into the limbo of fairy-tales. But when all allowance is made for the chronicler’s imagination, there remain some mediaeval stories of flight, which are now held by the best authorities to have a possible foundation in fact. Bishop Wilkins, of Chester, whose remarks on the art of flying in the second book of his Mathematical Magic, published in 1648, are among the classics of the subject, and show an extraordinary mixture of the ingenious theory with childlike ignorance of fact, informs us that, “it is related of a certain English monk, called Elmerus, about the Confessor’s time, that he did by such wings fly from a tower above a furlong; and so another from St. Mark’s steeple, in Venice; another at Norinberg; and Busbequius speaks of a Turk in Constantinople, who attempted something this way.”

One has regretfully to allow that the Turk, who is variously described as a Saracen, is the only one of these heroes of whom we know anything definite. A detailed account of his flight, in the presence of the Emperor Manuel Comnenus and the Sultan of the East, has been preserved, from which it has been supposed that he had devised a simple aeroplane on the lines of Lilienthal, and that he actually flew some distance before losing his balance and falling. The chronicler’s account is too closely in accordance with that we now know of the essential conditions of flight to be a mere invention. In the course of the thirteenth century we find evidence in the works of Roger Bacon that men already thought seriously of the possibility of bird-like flight, of flying machines in which a man sitting might set artificial wings in motion by the help of a spring. In the fifteenth century there is a record, now generally accepted, that one Dante of Perugia made several flights over Lake Trasimene, until one of his wings broke, and he fell and fractured his thigh. Leonardo da Vinci filled many pages of his note-books with models of wings. In the seventeenth century the art of flight was pursued in both England and France by men whose exploits have long been regarded as impudent fabrications, but whom the experiments of Lilienthal and others now incline us to accept as actual predecessors of his: unscientific, ill-fated and abused, but genuine seekers after the great discovery which is only now looking up in the near future. Bishop Wilkins thus refers to one of them, who must, unfortunately, for ever remain anonymous: –

“He that would effect anything in this kind must be brought up to the constant practice of it from his youth; trying first only to use his wings in running on the ground, as an ostrich or tame goose will do, touching the ground with his toes; and so by degrees learn to rise higher till he shall attain unto skill and confidence. I have heard it from credible testimony that one of our nation hath proceeded so far in this experiment that he was able by the use of wings to skip constantly ten yards at a time.”

Bacon had suggested a few years before that artificial wings might be made of birds’ feathers, which, if laid “thin and close, and in great breadth, will likewise bear up a great weight, being even laid, without tilting upon the sides. The farther extension of this experiment for flying may be thought upon.” Perhaps it was this passage that inspired the friend of Wilkins.

  • In 1600 one Allard tried to fly before Louis XIV, without much success; but in 1678 another Frenchman, Besnier de Sablé, flew across a river, according to the Journal des Sarants.
  • In 1742 the Marquis de Baqueville gave out that he would fly from his house on the Quay across the Seine and land in the Tuileries. A great concourse turned out to see him, and he actually got half way, then overbalanced and fell into a barge, breaking his leg.
  • The invention of balloons in 1783 gave a new direction to the thoughts of would-be aeronauts, and the next man of whose successful flight we have any record is Captain Le Bris, who flew in his artificial albatross some 200 yards, rising to a height of 300 feet, and alighting safely, about the middle of this century. Unfortunately, Captain Le Bris soon after had the usual accident: he was poor, and treated as a visionary, as has been the case with all who aimed at flight until our own generation, and no more was heard of what seems to have been a most promising invention.
  • In our own day attention has been drawn to the art of flying by the remarkable performances of Lilienthal and Mr. Pilcher, crowned by their deaths: by the big but still untried flying machine of Mr. Maxim, and the successful aerodromes of Professor Langley, one of which has flown for more than half a mile and come down safely.

According to Bishop Wilkins, who classified them with a great air of scientific exactness, there were four ways in which a man might fly: – “(1) By spirits or angels; (2) by the help of fowls; (3) by wings fastened immediately to the body; (4) by a flying chariot.”

We have abandoned the first method as hopeless in these matter-of-fact times, in spite of the precedents of Elijah and Philip, though it might pay the Aeronautical Society to investigate the next medium who professes levitation. The second plan is also practically abandoned, although as late as 1856 Lord Carlingford patented a flying-machine, to which he proposed in all seriousness to harness a team of trained eagles. In place of the birds we now have the balloon. The third and fourth methods are still in vogue. The way of the navigable balloon, the flying-machine, and the “wings” of Lilienthal: the two last may be otherwise defined as aeroplanes with and without motors independent of the wind. It is not proposed to deal here with the subject of navigable balloons, which is unduly complicated by the fact that most recent experiments with them have been made for military purposes, and their results are therefore kept from the public.

THE PROBLEM OF FLIGHT, properly so called, is to support a heavy body in the air by its own notion. With navigable balloons the object is to move and guide a floating body, which is quite another thing. Few people are aware how much has been done in the past decade towards solving this problem. That is was possible to solve has been known from the earliest times by the example of birds. Their soaring was too long attributed by the nominalists to an “ascentive virtue;” but observers thought differently. Bishop Wilkins declares that the art of flying

“will not, perhaps, seem so very difficult to any one who hath but diligently observed the flight of some other birds, particularly of a kite, how he will swim up and down in the air, sometimes at a great height, and presently again lower, guiding himself by his train, with his wings extended without any sensible motion of them; and all this, when there is only some gentle breath of air stirring, without the help of any strong, forcible wind. Now I say, if that very fowl (which is none of the lightest), can so easily move itself up and down in the air, without so much as stirring the wings of it, certainly, then, it is now improbable, but that when all the due proportions in such an engine are found out, and when men, by long practice, have arrived to any skill and experience, they will be able in this (as in many other things) to come very near unto the imitation of nature.”

Darwin’s famous description of the soaring condor, written in 1834, shows what men of acute observation had perceived, without being able to express it so well, for many centuries. “In the case of any bird soaring, its motion must be sufficiently rapid, so that the action of the inclined surface of its body on the atmosphere may counterbalance its gravity.” This is not exactly true, but it is near enough the truth to express the gist of the whole matter.

The air, thin and yielding as it seems, may yet be made to bear up the heavy body of the largest birds, of the steel framework and cargo of a flying-machine, by proper adjustments: us [sic] some one forcibly puts it, “The air is a solid if you hit it hard enough.” The difficulty just lies in hitting hard enough: and the proper way is to let the air itself do the hitting. The condor has known this for millions of years: we have only just begun to see it.

It is difficult, perhaps, impossible, to tell who first seriously tackled the problems of “aviation,” as it has been called—of using, that is to say, bird-like wings or aeroplanes for soaring or flying. But history—which in this as in most scientific questions merges imperceptibly into mythology at no very remote past—directs our attention to the wooden dove of Greek Archytas, the iron fly and eagle of Regiomontanus, or Johann Muller, the Frenchman, as being possibly the earliest flying models which were made. Sir George Cayley’s “bird” of 1796 revived interest in such toys. In our own day mechanicians have returned with more certain success to this branch or problem, and at least six artificial birds have been made to fly. Among these one may mention that of Pénaud, in 1872, which flew 50 feet in 7 seconds, rising 8 or 9 feet above the ground, and to that of Pichancourt, in 1889, which flew 70 feet with a rise of 25. Both of these were actuated by twisted cords of indiarubber, and proved so wasteful of power that no other known motor would be strong enough in proportion to its weight to drive them. Still, they flew. Even more successful has been the bird of M. Trouvé, which flew 70 or 80 yards at a time, being actuated by a series of explosions.

Of all these artificial birds, only two are believed to have been made on a scale sufficient to carry a man. One was Le Bris’ albatross, already mentioned: but its flight rests mainly on the evidence of a novelist, who professed to found his descriptions on strict fact. The other is the “bird” in which M. Ader is said to have flown in Paris, in 1891; but for “patriotic” reasons this experimenter has veiled his work in mystery.

The records of the Patent Office swarm in descriptions of bird-like flying machines, many of which are of great interest to the student; but for the present one need not consider these manifold devices, as none of them—not even Mr. Maxim’s—has yet flown. To find the only flying machine which has certainly been a success, we have to look across the Atlantic, to the “aerodrome” of Professor S. P. Langley, which has flown for as much as half-a-mile at a time, driven by a steam-engine, and has descended without injury when the motive power was exhausted. It is to Professor Langley, above all, that we owe our theoretical knowledge of the laws of flight. To Lilienthal and his followers, including Mr. Pilcher, we are indebted for practical investigation of the art of balancing in the air.

Until quite lately the laws of flight were entirely unknown to those who strove to obey them. Perhaps the earliest really scientific account of “The Way of the Eagle in the Air” is that published in 1865, by the Duke of Argyll, in The Reign of Law, which is well worth the study of all interested in the subject. The essential fact, that flying depends on the force of gravitation, is there brought out for almost the first time. “It is curious,” says the Duke of Argyll, “how completely this has been forgotten in almost all human attempts to navigate the air. Birds are not lighter than the air, but immensely heavier. If they were lighter than the air, they might float, but they could not fly.”

Another important fact, obvious enough now, was then novel to most readers: “When a strong current of air strikes against the wings of a bird, the same sustaining effect is produced as when the wing strikes against the air.” A proper comprehension of these two statements shows at once how unnecessary is the elaborate apparatus with which most aeronautic inventors have cumbered themselves.

It is safe to prophesy that the flying machine of the twentieth century will be analogous to a sailing vessel with an auxiliary screw, rather than to a mastless steamer. This is the prospect, indeed, that makes flying worth while to search after. It is the effortless soaring of the condor, not the fussy flapping of the sparrow, that must be taken as a model.

Every schoolboy who has ever thrown a paper dart, or flown a kite, knows—though he may never have put it into words—that the air will support a plane surface gliding through it at an angle to the horizon. This is the principle involved in all soaring flight, which was vaguely guessed by the Turk of Busbequius and Regiomontanus, and all who in the past have aimed at flight. But it is only in our own generation that the happy idea of setting out to discover by experiment the laws regulation the fact has occurred to a competent person. In 1887, Professor Langley, already well known as an astronomer, began to experiment on the behaviour of plane surfaces presented to currents of air. Incidentally he was led to investigations on the nature of the wind itself, which has already become classic. It is hardly too much to describe his two memoirs, On the Internal Work of the Wind, and Experiments in Aerodynamics, as the foundation of all future work on the principles of flight.

STUDY OF THE WIND—that is to say, of the air in its dynamic aspect—is an essential preliminary to the investigation of flight. Oddly enough, all meteorologists have missed one of the most characteristic properties of the wind, though it might have been guessed by any one who had watched a flag flying, or clothes hanging out to dry on a windy day. We are accustomed to talk of a steady wind; but there is no such thing in nature.

In 1883, Lord Rayleigh remarked that the continued soaring of birds like the condor must be based on one or more of three causes: “(1) that the course is not horizontal; (2) that the wind is not horizontal; or, (3) that the wind is not uniform.” Professor Langley was led to investigate the possibilities of the third cause partly by this suggestion and partly by the accident of his using a very small and light anomometer.

Meteorological observers in general have used large and heavy anomometers (indeed, Professor Langley’s instruments were so often blown away that the need of this is clear) and have read them at intervals too far apart. Thus they have only got records of what may be called the mean or average wind. Professor Langley has discovered that wind is only a generic name for a series of infinitely complex and little-known phenomena. The stronger the wind, the greater are its relative momentary fluctuations. “In a high wind the air moves in a tumultuous mass, the velocity being at one moment, perhaps, forty miles an hour, then diminishing to an almost instantaneous calm, and then resuming.”

This accounts for much that has hitherto been mysterious in the flight of birds and the behaviour of flying machines. Large birds of the eagle type are often seen to float on the air without any visible motion, save a certain rocking or balancing, for considerable fractions of an hour. A turkey buzzard has been seen to remain stationary without apparent effort in the teeth of a gale blowing thirty-five miles an hour. This, which seems contrary to all physical law, when we think of the wind as steady, may be readily explained when we see, as Professor Langley’s observations show, that wind, considered in the narrowest possible sections, in “variable and irregular in its observations beyond anything which had been anticipated.”

This “internal work” of the wind, as Professor Langley has called the minute fluctuations, may and probably does account for all the phenomena of soaring flight. He believes that, in consequence, it should be possible “to cause any suitably disposed body, animate or inanimate, wholly immersed in the wind, and wholly free to move, to advance against the direction of the wind itself.” “A ship is able to go against a head-wind by the force of that wind, owing to the fact that it is partly immersed in the water, which reacts on the keel; but it is here asserted that (contrary to usual opinion, and in opposition to what may at first seem the teachings of physical science) it is not impossible that a heavy and nearly inert body, wholly immersed in the air, can be made to do this.” This discovery has at once opened up the possibilities and difficulties of aerial navigation. In one sense flight is possible to-morrow: in another, it may cost many years of labour and thousands of lives to learn its practical conditions. So far as the motive power is concerned, there is no trouble: the problem has two solutions.

IN THE FIRST PLACE, Professor Langley has shown that sailing flight without a motor, except perhaps for starting and stopping, is theoretically possible. He believes that it is not beyond the power of our mechanicians to devise a machine that will do all that the condor knows. The problem is to take advantage of the favourable shifts of wind that occur every moment.

The bird, by some tactile sensibility to the pressure and direction of the air, is able, in nautical phrase, to “see the wind,” and to time its movements, so that, without any reference to its height from the ground, it reaches the lowest portion of its descent near the end of the more rapid wind pulsations. Professor Langley believes that to cause these adaptive changes in an otherwise inert body, with what might almost be called instinctive readiness and rapidity, does not really demand intelligence or even instinct, but that the future aerodrome may be furnished with a substitute for instinct in what may be called a mechanical brain, which yet not, in his opinion, be intricate in its character. It will also be apparent to the reader that, if the “inert body” were to be guided by a human intelligence, man-flight would become possible.

It is on these lines that Lilienthal and Mr. Pilcher were working. Before proceeding to consider their methods, it will be convenient to finish the discussion of Professor Langley’s work.

The other solution of the flight-problem is by means of a flying-machine proper—that is, combination of a system of sustaining planes or carved surfaces and a motor. The various modes of propulsion that have been suggested for such a machine may all be classed under four heads: a jet of steam or gas, as in the rocket; feathering paddles; flapping wings; or the screw-propeller. Of these four, the last is the only one that seems to have a future before it. Professor Langley, Mr. Hargrave, and Mr. Maxim have each adopted it.

It will be news to most people that these is not the least doubt as to the efficiency of a screw driven by proper engines to propel an aeroplane through the air. Mr. Maxim and Professor Langley have both, in different ways, establish this fact, upon which all competent aeronauts are now agreed. Mr. Maxim’s machine has, undoubtedly, power to fly, if let loose; that is has not yet done so is due to difficulties of another kind, which make it very uncertain whether the machine would survive a single trial; and as the engine alone is understood to have cost its weight in silver, no one can wonder that the crucial experiment is delayed until there is every prospect of a safe event.

Professor Langley has not only made models which have actually flown, but has worked out the conditions under which a plane or set of planes can be supported in the air, through a long series of elaborate and convincing experiments. By means of these he has demonstrated that we possess, in existing steam and other heat engines, “more than the requisite power to urge a system of rigid planes through the air at a great velocity, making them not only self-sustaining, but capable of carrying other than their own weight.”

This may be taken as established, although the art of flight is still in a more rudimentary state than was the use of steam before Newcomen.

A further and still more important conclusion is that to which it has been well proposed to give the name of Langley’s Law: “If there be given a plane of fixed size and weight, inclined at such an angle, and moved forward at such a speed that it shall be sustained in horizontal flight, then the more rapid the motion is, the less will be the power required to support and advance it.”

From experiments conducted with a system of planes 30 inches by 4.8 inches, placed one above another at intervals of 4 inches and rigidly connected, which were exposed to air-currents of varying strength in the “whirling-table” or scientific merry-go-round with which the experiments were made, Professor Langley deduced the following interesting results in support of this law: – wegf_table1 We thus see that a similar aeroplane, inclined at 2° to the horizon and driven at 45 miles per hour, would support over 200 lb. for each horse-power. Mr. Maxim claims from experiments with his machine that one horse-power will lift 133 lb.

In either case, as Mr. Maxim has shown the possibility of building engines up to 300 horse-power weighing only 8 lb. per horse-power, there is clearly ample power to drive a loaded aeroplane. The real difficulty, as has been said, is to be sought elsewhere. The obstacles in the way of flight “lie more in such apparently secondary difficulties as those of guiding the body so that it may move in the direction desired, and ascend or descend in safety, than in what may appear to be the primary difficulties due to the nature of the air itself.”

It was these obstacles that Lilienthal, Mr. Pilcher and the others who have experimented with similar “wings” set themselves to study and, if possible, to overcome. Independent of motors, they aimed at studying the actual conditions of balancing and steering in the air. They held with Bishop Wilkins that “in these practical studies, unless a man be able to go the trial of things, he will perform but little.”


OTTO LILIENTHAL, WHOSE NAME will always be associated with the first scientific attempts at soaring, as flying without a motor may conveniently be called, was born in 1848. When he was only thirteen, he began to take an interest in the problem of flying, to which he gave all the time he could spare in later life from his engineering business. After some crude boyish attempts at flying, he saw the necessity of studying the flight of birds, and devoted twenty years to this work, summing up his observations in the valuable treatise on The Flight of Birds as the Basis of the Art of Flying, which he published in 1889.

He concluded by laying down thirty rules for the construction of artificial wings, or rather, a soaring machine. At the outset he pointed out that the construction of such a machine was mot dependent on motors, and that with a strong wind a man equipped with proper sustaining planes could “perform soaring or sailing flight.” Thus he had independently reached one of Professor Langley’s results. The other chief conclusion to which he came was that the great difficulty in flying was the maintenance of the balance in the air. Thus, when he thought the time had come for actual experiment, he laid aside all thought of building a flying machine, and set himself to learn the art of aerial balancing by soaring with the wind.

Wiser than his possible predecessors, he was content to walk before he could fly, and went slowly. He spent long in devising a satisfactory system of wings—as for shortness one may call his and Mr. Pilcher’s soaring-machines, bearing always in mind that the wings were rigid and not for flapping—before committing himself to the air at all.

Finally, with the aid of a bird-shaped framework, so made that the inclination of the wings and tail could be altered at pleasure by his arms, he successfully attempted toboggan-like glides down an inclined plane of air, starting from the top of a low conical mound. Gripping the framework tightly, he ran down the slope until he had attained such a velocity that the air raised him from the ground—very like Bishop Wilkins’ acquaintance.

Once in the air, he sailed along until the impetus was exhausted and he had to come to earth. He learnt to guide himself in the air by adjusting the wings to the wind. In this fashion he was able with practice to fly as much as a quarter of a mile at a time, always “coasting” down an aerial slope. The sensation was wildly exhilarating, as all who have tried it agree.

“After a few trials,” wrote Lilienthal, “one begins to have a feeling of mastery over the situation. … Finally, we become perfectly at ease, even when soaring high in the air, while the indescribably beautiful and gentle gliding over the long sunny slope, rekindles our ardour anew at every trial. It does not take very long before it is quite a matter of indifference whether we are gliding along two or twenty yards above the ground; we feel how safely the air is carrying us, even though we see diminutive men looking up at us in astonishment. Soon we pass over ravines as high as houses, and sail for several hundred yards through the air without any danger, parrying the force of the wind at every movement.”

It was not by any means all plain sailing. The bold experimenter had many a fall, whose various natures he used to describe as gaily as the memorable Mr. Jorrocks. People in general do not realise the true difficulty of flight, of which Mr. H. G. Wells has given so brilliant and picturesque a description in his last novel. As Professor Langley has shown, the air is full of minor disturbances in the steadiest wind. To attempt to fly through these on an even keel is comparable to riding a bicycle over a plain convulsed by continuous earthquakes. A bird has learnt to do this by the inherited experience of millions of generations, which has taught it instinctively to meet every variation of the aerial currents, and even to pick out and use the favourable ones.

It is amazing that Lilienthal and his followers—Mr. Pilcher, Mr. Chanute, Mr. Herring, should have achieved so much success as we know to have attended them. Lilienthal describes how again and again he was seized by sudden gusts which, before he had time to make the necessary adjustments, carried him high up in the air so swiftly as to take away his breath; yet he always managed to recover his balance and soar on. At other times the wind got on the upper surface of his wings and dashed him arrow-like to the ground, smashing the apparatus and bruising him badly. But he was a strong and skilful gymnast, and practice made him well-nigh perfect in the art of sailing down-hill in calm or slightly breezy weather. His fatal accident, as has been said, was due to a defect in his apparatus rather that to any loss of skill.

Mr. Pilcher also related that, after only three months’ practice with very similar wings, which he made independently and then compared with Lilienthal’s, he was pretty sure of his balance in the air, being then “able to land without damage and without falling, even when soaring over the ground very fast.” Messrs. Chanute and Herring, whose American experiments have been conducted with a form of wings which they consider a great improvement on those of Lilienthal, say that “any young and active man can become expert in a week with either of these machines” – sufficiently expert, that is, to soar without serious danger.

It is much to be hoped that the premature death of Mr. Pilcher will rather direct attention to the problem which he was studying with so much courage and ingenuity than deter experimenters. One has already pointed out that this accident was scarcely inevitable: Mr. Pilcher’s enthusiasm led him to take a risk which he might most reasonable have avoided, although it will be a bad day for the race when our young men cease to err on the side of audacity.

There can be no doubt that the solution of the flight problem will be brought nearer by every new experimenter on the Lilienthal lines, for the most essential thing is to master the art of balance. It has been well said that, if we were suddenly presented by some fairy godmother with the complete flying-machine of the twentieth century, we should be as helpless to manage it as a Central African savage would be to ride a bicycle. The Lilienthal apparatus, in fact, is to the future flying-machine much what the dandy-horse of the Regency is to the bicycle of to-day. Lilienthal himself was most anxious to see its use widely spread, though he failed to emulate the generosity of Mr. Lawrence Hargrave in refusing to patent any of his aeronautical inventions. He wanted to see what he called “Fliegesport” become a rival to rowing or cycling amongst athletic youth.

“If,” he said, “we can succeed in enticing to the hill the young men who to-day make use of the bicycle and the boat to strengthen their nerves and muscle, so that, borne by their wings, they may glide through the air, we shall then have directed the development of human flight into a course which leads towards perfection.”

MR. PILCHER WAS, SO far as one knows, the only Englishman who had yet taken up this exercise, though it has been more seriously accepted in America, where the Editor of the Aeronautical Annual hopes to see air regattae and large prizes at no very distant date. Another eminent American, it is true, suggests that the business should be put into the hands of criminals as an alternative to execution.

“A man convicted of slaughtering his wife, for example, instead of being forced to edify a handful of curious onlookers with the ghastly spectacle of capital punishment, might be permitted first to receive the coaching of some expert in aerodynamics; then on the day set for public exhibition, if both machine and aviator go to smash, well and good; the criminal would have had to suffer death anyway, and the builder of the machine would feel compensated by the opportunity for testing his device; while if the trial succeeded, the gain to the art of flight might be enormous, and the culprit will come down, presumably, frightened enough to choose a life of virtue for ever thereafter.”

Seriously, it seems highly desirable that the use of the Lilienthal apparatus should be taken up by a good many people. Mr. Chanute, who is the chief living authority on the matter, is of opinion that there is no real danger if Lilienthal’s warnings are carefully studied; that actual human flight is far more instructive than any experiments with models; that the apparatus may be so far improved as to have automatic stability, somewhat on the analogy of the balance chamber of a Whitehead torpedo; and that the problem of flight can only be solved by long and numerous experiments with these light one-man soaring apparatus.

He thinks that they ought not to be much more costly nor much more difficult to learn, for young and athletic men, than a bicycle. Mr. Herring, who has tried it, says that there is “no better sport imaginable that coasting through the air.” Such danger as there is may be eliminated by the simple device of making the preliminary flight over water, with a cork jacket and a boat in readiness. Certainly, the peril should not be greater than in polo or mountaineering. It is hardly necessary to point out how infinitely greater would be the reward of success.

Again to quote Bishop Wilkins: “The perfecting of such an invention would be of such excellent use, that it were enough not only to make a man famous, but the age also wherein he lives.” One will be very much surprised if that prospect does not appeal to a generation that is not averse from fame, and notoriously avid of new sensations.

F.R. November 1899
vol 71

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Note: This article was retrieved from the archives by the editor of the Fortnightly Review‘s New Series and transcribed manually. Please credit the Fortnightly Review and in any subsequent citation.

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