Trivia Teaser: Interesting Footnotes

Question: The year of the first documented sustained flight of a heavier-than-air powered flying machine was:
A) 1874
B) 1884
C) 1896
D) 1901
E) 1903
Answer: Felix du Temple was a French naval officer who in 1857 secured a patent for a flying machine. Built with help from his brother Louis (aha! les premiers deux frères d’aviation?) his machine had large forward-swept, silk-covered wings which were attached to a short fuselage and interestingly, these wings did happen to have some dihedral. Weighing approximately one ton, his machine was powered by an engine of unknown function having approximately six horsepower (and it was of course, woefully under-powered). In 1874 this airplane, piloted by a young sailor whose name history has overlooked, was sent down a ramp at Brest, in France. It did leave the ground momentarily, but by no stretch of the imagination could it have been called a sustained flight. (It was however possibly the first documented, powered hop in history.) But scratch choice A.

A Russian named Alexander Mozhaiski (who was a captain, in this case, in the Imperial Russian Navy) who had studied bird flight, experimented with kites (some large enough to lift him when pulled along at speed by horses), experimented with models, and had the full approval of the Russian Academy of Sciences for a full-sized piloted flying machine which was patented in 1881 and built in 1883. Somewhat akin to Henson’s Aerial Steam Carriage, his airplane was steam powered, had a cruciform tail, one tractor propeller and two smaller rearward pusher propellers. In 1884, I. N. Golubev piloted Mozhaiski’s machine down an inclined ramp near St. Petersburg, and remained airborne for a distance of 80 feet. This flight was more of a powered leap however, and there were no semblances whatsoever of any control surfaces to effect even the minimum of maneuverability. So much for choice

B. Now we come to the year 1896, and the more familiar name of Samuel Pierpont Langley. The scene is a houseboat off Chopawamsic Island near the western shore of the Potomac River at Quantico, Virginia, and the date is May 6. (And the time was even recorded: 3:05 p.m.) Langley, along with a close friend named Alexander Graham Bell (and four assistants) had a silk-covered tandem-winged spruce airplane slung under a catapult mounted on the houseboat’s roof. The airplane was powered by a one horsepower engine driving two propellers mounted between the pair of wings, and had a horizontal and vertical tail at its rear. This wasn’t a model airplane, as it was fully 13 feet, wingtip to wingtip. However, it was still too small to carry a fully grown adult. Launched into a gentle breeze, it climbed and circled to a height of about 100 feet, and when the engine lost power it gently descended after being airborne for about a minute and a half, covering a total distance estimated at about 3300 feet. (Too bad Charles Manley didn’t have as gentle a ride!) So this was the first sustained (although not ‘controlled’) flight of a heavier-than-air flying machine! Of course, I didn’t say it was piloted, did I? (I deliberately skipped 1890 and Clement Ader’s flight in his Eole, as this was hardly sustained, and definitely not under any semblance of control.)

In 1901, Gustave Whitehead, who moved to Connecticut from his native Berlin (where he had personally witnessed the flights of Otto Lilienthal) built a bird-like flying machine of bamboo, covered by silk, and powered by a 12 horsepower engine driving two tractor propellers. On August 14, he reportedly flew up to one and a half miles to heights as great as 200 feet. But I said ‘documented’ and there were never any photographs to back up his claims to early flight. Scratch choice D. (And everyone knows what and to whom the mention of 1903 refers.)