Trivia Teaser: Fixed Wing Fuselage

The first modern configuration airplane in history, comprising a fixed wing, fuselage, with horizontal and vertical tail surfaces, can be dated back as far as

A)        875 AD
B)        1493
C)        1804
D)        1901

Abu’l Qasim Abbas ibn Firnas of Islamic Spain supposedly invented, constructed, and tested a flying machine in about 875 A.D. But it didn’t have the same design as a modern airplane. And the great genius da Vinci, although he designed aerial machines (somewhat idealistic thought they were), also didn’t come at all close either. The figure 1901 in choice D smacks of the Wright Brothers, of course. It was actually choice C, the correct one, which (again alphabetically appropriate) stands for Sir George Cayley of England. As early as 1799 in fact, he had engraved his design concept for a fixed-wing aircraft on a silver disc, the reverse side of which actually depicts resultant aerodynamic force vectors…the first lift-drag diagram in the history of aeronautical engineering. (This disk is still in existence, in the collection of the Science Museum in London.) And there is also a drawing still in existence that he made five years later, in 1804, of a one-meter long model glider, the first modern configuration airplane in history. It featured a kite-like wing fixed to a wooden fuselage and inclined about six degrees by a peg at its leading edge. This was totally at odds with contemporary designs which more resembled ornithopters. His proposal involved a fixed wing to generate lift, a separate means of propulsion to overcome air resistance, and both vertical and horizontal tail surfaces for directional and longitudinal static stability. Cayley, although he spent his life as a well-to-do Yorkshire country squire, had no formal education. He spent much of the period after this until about 1843 working on lighter-than-air balloons and airships, but after that returned to work testing several full-scale aircraft. One of these, a monoplane glider, carried a reluctant pilot, Cayley’s coachman, across a small valley about 500 yards, in 1853.