George Cayley
Felix du Temple
balloons and airships
Clément Ader
Jean-Marie Le Bris
Butler and Edwards
Jules Henri Giffard
Lawrence Hargrave
Etienne-Jules Marey
Thomas William Moy
Alexandr Mozhaisky
Charles Renard
Victor Tatin
Nikolaj Teleshov
Thomas Walker
John Wise
Richard Pearse
Henson and Stringfellow
Alphonse Penaud
Francis Wenham
Otto Lilienthal
Pilcher and Chanute
Samuel Langley
Horatio Phillips
was Herring the first to fly?

Pilcher and Chanute

By the turn of the century, interest in flight was too great to be set back by the death of Lilienthal. One individual upon whom Lilienthal had a profound effect was Percy Sinclair Pilcher, a lecturer in naval architecture and marine engineering at the University of Glasgow. Lilienthal was generous in his support of Pilcher, allowing the latter to gain flight experience with Lilienthal’s gliders in preparation for flying his own.

 Octave Chanute in the 1890s

Pilcher’s glider, the Bat, which was built in 1895 and similar in design to Lilienthal’s but without a tail assembly, was less dramatic  in its appearance but more aerodynamically efficient. With the flight experience gained on Lilienthal’s glider, Pilcher built several others, including the Hawk, which included a tail unit with a hinged surface controlled by the pilot and a wheeled undercarriage with dampening springs to absorb landing shock. Pilcher then turned his attention to propulsion and calculated that an engine weighing forty pounds (18kg) and generating 4 horsepower (not yet in existence, but within reach) could keep his aircraft in flight although it would be insufficient for an unassisted take-off.

Pilcher never got to test his aircraft engine. In an effort to generate interest and gain  investors, he exhibited the unpowered Hawk in Leicestershire, England, on September 30, 1899. In flight, the tail assembly broke, and the craft crashed.

Like Lilienthal, Pilcher died a day after crashing; he was thirty-two. During the nineteenth century, while aviation research was pushing forward in Europe, nearly nothing constructive was happening in this area in the United States. Although there was interest in flying, and patent offices in the United States and around the world were swamped by fanciful designs for flying machines, very little in the way of research and experimentation was going on.

The country was still expanding to fill its borders, securing its footing in the community of nations, and lunging toward industrialization. However, in the 1 890s, this situation turned itself so completely around that in 1892 the French-Egyptian experimenter Louis Mouillard commented, “You Americans are clearly in the lead in the aviation movement."

 Chanute poses with William Avety’s model of the Katydid, one of three designs tested near Lake Michigan in the summer of 1896. These tests showed that the increased lift provided by multiple wings was offset by the weight of the structure required for stability.

Credit for this leap goes largely to two men working to quietly and independently: Octave Chanute and Samuel Pierpont Langley. Octave Chanute (born Chanut, but he  Americanised the pronunciation of his name by adding the e) was born in France, but the family emigrated to the United States in 1838. Octave joined a railroad crew where he apprenticed himself to Henry Gardner, the engineer for the Hudson River Railroad, and in a few years developed a reputation as an outstanding engineer in his own right. He served as president of the fledgling American Society of Civil Engineers and chaired a committee that devised a rapid-transit rail system for New York City. The political pressures with which Chanute had to contend, following on the heels of his heroic but frustrated efforts to improve the scandal-ridden Erie Railroad, caused him to enter a period of depression and exhaustion. This prompted him to tour Europe, where he could relax, and it was on this tour that he was exposed to the work being done there in aviation.

At the turn of the century, it was clear from Such surveys what the expectations were for the competing designs: the multi-winged machines of Lilienthal and Chanute were more exciting than the airship designs of the day, but Langley’s powered machines showed the most promise.

Flight was never more than a hobby for Chanute, but his interest was to remain avid for the rest of his life and he was among the first to think seriously about the aerodynamic effects of wind on roofs, bridges, and railroad locomotives. Upon his return to the United States, he moved to Chicago and continued his engineering work.

Chanute was continually recognized as making important contributions to the country’s westward expansion, so when his history of flight, Progress in Flying Machines (based on articles he had written for the Railroad Engineering Journal), was published in 1894, it was widely read and considered a serious work. In this work, Chanute summarized all aviation efforts to that time and made some pointed suggestions as to the avenues along which serious experimenters might proceed. Progress in Flying Machines, along with Lilienthal’s work, was studied carefully by the Wrights, whose respect for Chanute, based on this work, was so great that the brothers corresponded with Chanute and later they became friends. At the age of sixty-two, Chanute decided to take his interest one step further and experiment with building and flying gliders himself.

Too old to fly himself, he sought out young men with engineering talent and assembled a team consisting of August M. Herring, a New Yorker who had already built several moderately successful Lilienthal-type gliders; William Avery, a Chicago carpenter who was building a glider to Chanute’s specifications; and William Paul Botusov, a Russian immigrant who claimed to have built a successful glider along the lines of Le Bris’s artificial birds.

In June of 1896, Chanute set up camp along the duned southern shore of Lake Michigan, east of Chicago, and that summer his group tested a number of gliders (under the full view of reporters who filed almost daily reports on the group’s progress). First they tested a glider Herring had already constructed—with financial backing from Chanute—on the Lilienthal model. However, they found it difficult to fly and capable of only short hops of no more than 116 feet (35m). In the meantime, Avery’s workshop back in Chicago had completed a multi-wing glider, the Katydid, so named because of its insect-like appearance, and brought it to the test site. The craft had six pairs of wings, arranged on a central frame and pivoted so that the wings could adjust and bring the aircraft back into trim no matter what the wind conditions.

Experimental glides with the wings in different configurations resulted in a craft that was safe, stable, and manageable even in winds of twenty miles per hour (32kph), though not capable of longer glides than Herring’s machine. On July 4, the group disbanded and returned to Avery’s workshop to use what they had learned to build three gliders: a version of Butusov’s glider (dubbed the Albatross), an improved version of the Katydid, and a new craft designed by Chanute and Herring. At the end of August, the group returned to the testing site with all three machines.

 The Katydid and the Albatross performed well, but not significantly better than the machines used in the earlier trials. The third machine, however, represented a vast improvement and a major step forward. Chanute used a bridge-building device, Pratt trusses—crossed wires bracing vertical struts evenly spaced between upper and lower wings—to give the rigid wings more structural stability and added a cruciform tail section and a seat for the pilot.

This machine made many flights at over 350 feet (106.5m) and was remarkably stable and easy to fly. It also had the characteristic wing shape that the Wrights were later to adopt. Chanute ended the trial in late September. In the summer of 1896, Herring conducted further tests with this glider. On October 11, 1898, using a two-cylinder compressed-air engine, Herring conducted a powered glide of about fifty feet. Though Herring was convinced this feat had made him the first to fly, Chanute realized that what the young man had actually accomplished was to come closer to the goal of powered, controlled flight than anyone had before, but that they were still not there.