XII. THE FIRST YEARS OF CONQUEST
It is no derogation of the work accomplished by the Wright Brothers to say that they won the honour of the first power-propelled flights in a heavier-than-air machine only by a short period. In Europe, and especially in France, independent experiment was being conducted by Ferber, by Santos-Dumont, and others, while in England Cody was not far behind the other giants of those days. The history of the early years of controlled power flights is a tangle of half-records; there were no chroniclers, only workers, and much of what was done goes unrecorded perforce, since it was not set down at the time.
Before passing to survey of those early years, let it be set down that in 1907, when the Wright Brothers had proved the practicability of their machines, negotiations were entered into between the brothers and the British War office. On April 12th 1907, the apostle of military stagnation, Haldane, then War Minister, put an end to the negotiations by declaring that 'the War office is not disposed to enter into relations at present with any manufacturer of aeroplanes' The state of the British air service in 1914 at the outbreak of hostilities, is eloquent regarding the pursuance of the policy which Haldane initiated.
'If I talked a lot,' said Wilbur Wright once, 'I should be like the parrot, which is the bird that speaks most and flies least.' That attitude is emblematic of the majority of the early fliers, and because of it the record of their achievements is incomplete to-day. Ferber, for instance, has left little from which to state what he did, and that little is scattered through various periodicals, scrappily enough. A French army officer, Captain Ferber was experimenting with monoplane and biplane gliders at the beginning of the century-his work was contemporary with that of the Wrights. He corresponded both with Chanute and with the Wrights, and in the end he was commissioned by the French Ministry of War to undertake the journey to America in order to negotiate with the Wright Brothers concerning French rights in the patents they had acquired, and to study their work at first hand.
Ferber's experiments in gliding began in 1899 at the Military School at Fountainebleau, with a canvas glider of some 80 square feet supporting surface, and weighing 65 lbs. Two years later he constructed a larger and more satisfactory machine, with which he made numerous excellent glides. Later, he constructed an apparatus which suspended a plane from a long arm which swung on a tower, in order that experiments might be carried out without risk to the experimenter, and it was not until 1905 that he attempted power-driven free flight. He took up the Voisin design of biplane for his power-driven flights, and virtually devoted all his energies to the study of aeronautics. His book, Aviation, its Dawn and Development, is a work of scientific value--unlike many of his contemporaries, Ferber brought to the study of the problems of flight a trained mind, and he was concerned equally with the theoretical problems of aeronautics and the practical aspects of the subject.
After Bleriot's successful cross-Channel flight, it was proposed to offer a prize of L1,000 for the feat which C. S. Rolls subsequently accomplished (starting from the English side of the Channel), a flight from Boulogne to Dover and back; in place of this, however, an aviation week at Boulogne was organised, but, although numerous aviators were invited to compete, the condition of the flying grounds was such that no competitions took place. Ferber was virtually the only one to do any flying at Boulogne, and at the outset he had his first accident; after what was for those days a good flight, he made a series of circles with his machine, when it suddenly struck the ground, being partially wrecked. Repairs were carried out, and Ferber resumed his exhibition flights, carrying on up to Wednesday, September 22nd, 1909. On that day he remained in the air for half an hour, and, as he was about to land, the machine struck a mound of earth and overturned, pinning Ferber under the weight of the motor. After being extricated, Ferber seemed to show little concern at the accident, but in a few minutes he complained of great pain, when he was conveyed to the ambulance shed on the ground.
'I was foolish,' he told those who were with him there. 'I was flying too low. It was my own fault and it will be a severe lesson to me. I wanted to turn round, and was only five metres rom the ground.' A little after this, he got up from the couch on which he had been placed, and almost immediately collapsed, dying five minutes later.
Ferber's chief contemporaries in France were Santos-Dumont, of airship fame, Henri and Maurice Farman, Hubert Latham, Ernest Archdeacon, and Delagrange. These are names that come at once to mind, as does that of Bleriot, who accomplished the second great feat of power-driven flight, but as a matter of fact the years 1903-10 are filled with a little host of investigators and experimenters, many of whom, although their names do not survive to any extent, are but a very little way behind those mentioned here in enthusiasm and devotion. Archdeacon and Gabriel Voisin, the former of whom took to heart the success achieved by the Wright Brothers, co-operated in experiments in gliding. Archdeacon constructed a glider in box-kite fashion, and Voisin experimented with it on the Seine, the glider being towed by a motorboat to attain the necessary speed. It was Archdeacon who offered a cup for the first straight flight of 200 metres, which was won by Santos-Dumont, and he also combined with Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe in giving the prize for the first circular flight of a mile, which was won by Henry Farman on January 13th, 1908.
A history of the development of aviation in France in these, the strenuous years, would fill volumes in itself. Bleriot was carrying out experiments with a biplane glider on the Seine, and Robert Esnault-Pelterie was working on the lines of the Wright Brothers, bringing American practice to France. In America others besides the Wrights had wakened to the possibilities of heavier-than-air flight; Glenn Curtiss, in company with Dr Alexander Graham Bell, with J. A. D. McCurdy, and with F. W. Baldwin, a Canadian engineer, formed the Aerial Experiment Company, which built a number of aeroplanes, most famous of which were the 'June Bug,' the 'Red Wing,' and the 'White Wing.' In 1908 the 'June Bug 'won a cup presented by the Scientific American--it was the first prize offered in America in connection with aeroplane flight.
Among the little group of French experimenters in these first years of practical flight, Santos-Dumont takes high rank. He built his 'No. 14 bis' aeroplane in biplane form, with two superposed main plane surfaces, and fitted it with an eight-cylinder Antoinette motor driving a two-bladed aluminium propeller, of which the blades were 6 feet only from tip to tip. The total lift surface of 860 square feet was given with a wing-span of a little under 40 feet, and the weight of the complete machine was 353 lbs., of which the engine weighed 158 lbs. In July of 1906 Santos-Dumont flew a distance of a few yards in this machine, but damaged it in striking the ground; on October 23rd of the same year he made a flight of nearly 200 feet--which might have been longer, but that he feared a crowd in front of the aeroplane and cut off his ignition. This may be regarded as the first effective flight in Europe, and by it Santos-Dumont takes his place as one of the chief--if not the chief--of the pioneers of the first years of practical flight, so far as Europe is concerned.
Meanwhile, the Voisin Brothers, who in 1904 made cellular kites for Archdeacon to test by towing on the Seine from a motor launch, obtained data for the construction of the aeroplane which Delagrange and Henry Farman were to use later. The Voisin was a biplane, constructed with due regard to the designs of Langley, Lilienthal, and other earlier experimenters--both the Voisins and M. Colliex, their engineer, studied Lilienthal pretty exhaustively in getting out their design, though their own researches were very thorough as well. The weight of this Voisin biplane was about 1,450 lbs., and its maximum speed was some 38 to 40 miles per hour, the total supporting surface being about 535 square feet. It differed from the Wright design in the possession of a tail-piece, a characteristic which marked all the French school of early design as in opposition to the American. The Wright machine got its longitudinal stability by means of the main planes and the elevating planes, while the Voisin type added a third factor of stability in its sailplanes. Further, the Voisins fitted their biplane with a wheeled undercarriage, while the Wright machine, being fitted only with runners, demanded a launching rail for starting. Whether a machine should be tailless or tailed was for some long time matter for acute controversy, which in the end was settled by the fitting of a tail to the Wright machines-France won the dispute by the concession.
Henry Farman, who began his flying career with a Voisin machine, evolved from it the aeroplane which bore his name, following the main lines of the Voisin type fairly closely, but making alterations in the controls, and in the design of the undercarriage, which was somewhat elaborated, even to the inclusion of shock absorbers. The seven-cylinder 50 horse-power Gnome rotary engine was fitted to the Farman machine—the Voisins had fitted an eight-cylinder Antoinette, giving 50 horse-power at 1,100 revolutions per minute, with direct drive to the propeller. Farman reduced the weight of the machine from the 1,450 lbs. of the Voisins to some 1,010 lbs. or thereabouts, and the supporting area to 450 square feet. This machine won its chief fame with Paulhan as pilot in the famous London to Manchester flight--it is to be remarked, too, that Farman himself was the first man in Europe to accomplish a flight of a mile.
Other notable designs of these early days were the 'R.E.P.', Esnault Pelterie's machine, and the Curtiss-Herring biplane. Of these Esnault Pelterie's was a monoplane, designed in that form since Esnault Pelterie had found by experiment that the wire used in bracing offers far more resistance to the air than its dimensions would seem to warrant. He built the wings of sufficient strength to stand the strain of flight without bracing wires, and dependent only for their support on the points of attachment to the body of the machine; for the rest, it carried its propeller in front of the planes, and both horizontal and vertical rudders at the stern--a distinct departure from the Wright and similar types. One wheel only was fixed under the body where the undercarriage exists on a normal design, but light wheels were fixed, one at the extremity of each wing, and there was also a wheel under the tail portion of the machine. A single lever actuated all the controls for steering. With a supporting surface of 150 square feet the machine weighed 946 lbs., about 6.4 lbs. per square foot of lifting surface.
The Curtiss biplane, as flown by Glenn Curtiss at the Rheims meeting, was built with a bamboo framework, stayed by means of very fine steel-stranded cables. A--then--novel feature of the machine was the moving of the ailerons by the pilot leaning to one side or the other in his seat, a light, tubular arm-rest being pressed by his body when he leaned to one side or the other, and thus operating the movement of the ailerons employed for tilting the plane when turning. A steering-wheel fitted immediately in front of the pilot's seat served to operate a rear steering-rudder when the wheel was turned in either direction, while pulling back the wheel altered the inclination of the front elevating planes, and so gave lifting or depressing control of the plane.
This machine ran on three wheels before leaving the ground, a central undercarriage wheel being fitted in front, with two more in line with a right angle line drawn through the centre of the engine crank at the rear end of the crank-case. The engine was a 35 horsepower Vee design, water cooled, with overhead inlet and exhaust valves, and Bosch high-tension magneto ignition. The total weight of the plane in flying order was about 700 lbs.
As great a figure in the early days as either Ferber or Santos-Dumont was Louis Bleriot, who, as early as 1900 built a flapping-wing model, this before ever he came to experimenting with the Voisin biplane type of glider on the Seine. Up to 1906 he had built four biplanes of his own design, and in March of 1907 he built his first monoplane, to wreck it only a few days after completion in an accident from which he had a fortunate escape. His next machine was a double monoplane, designed after Langley's precept, to a certain extent, and this was totally wrecked in September of 1907. His seventh machine, a monoplane, was built within a month of this accident, and with this he had a number of mishaps, also achieving some good flights, including one in which he made a turn. It was wrecked in December of 1907, whereupon he built another monoplane on which, on July 6th, 1908, Bleriot made a flight lasting eight and a half minutes. In October of that year he flew the machine from Toury to Artenay and returned on it--this was just a day after Farman's first cross-country flight--but, trying to repeat the success five days later, Bleriot collided with a tree in a fog and wrecked the machine past repair. Thereupon he set about building his eleventh machine, with which he was to achieve the first flight across the English channel.
Henry Farman, to whom reference has already been made, was engaged with his two brothers, Maurice and Richard, in the motor-car business, and turned to active interest in flying in 1907, when the Voisin firm built his first biplane on the box-kite principle. In July of 1908 he won a prize of L400 for a flight of thirteen miles, previously having completed the first kilometre flown in Europe with a passenger, the said passenger being Ernest Archdeaon. In September of 1908 Farman put up a speed record of forty miles an hour in a flight lasting forty minutes.
Santos-Dumont produced the famous 'Demoiselle' monoplane early in 1909, a tiny machine in which the pilot had his seat in a sort of miniature cage under the main plane. It was a very fast, light little machine but was difficult to fly, and owing to its small wingspread was unable to glide at a reasonably safe angle. There has probably never been a cheaper flying machine to build than the 'Demoiselle,' which could be so upset as to seem completely wrecked, and then repaired ready for further flight by a couple of hours' work. Santos-Dumont retained no patent in the design, but gave it out freely to any one who chose to build 'Demoiselles'; the vogue of the pattern was brief, owing to the difficulty of piloting the machine.
These were the years of records, broken almost as soon as made. There was Farman's mile, there was the flight of the Comte de Lambert over the Eiffel Tower, Latham's flight at Blackpool in a high wind, the Rheims records, and then Henry Farman's flight of four hours later in 1909, Orville Wright's height record of 1,640 feet, and Delagrange's speed record of 49.9 miles per hour. The coming to fame of the Gnome rotary engine helped in the making of these records to a very great extent, for in this engine was a prime mover which gave the reliability that aeroplane builders and pilots had been searching for, but vainly. The Wrights and Glenn Curtiss, of course, had their own designs of engine, but the Gnome, in spite of its lack of economy in fuel and oil, and its high cost, soon came to be regarded as the best power plant for flight.
Delagrange, one of the very good pilots of the early days, provided a curious insight to the way in which flying was regarded, at the opening of the Juvisy aero aerodrome in May of 1909. A huge crowd had gathered for the first day's flying, and nine machines were announced to appear, but only three were brought out. Delagrange made what was considered an indifferent little flight, and another pilot, one De Bischoff, attempted to rise, but could not get his machine off the ground. Thereupon the crowd of 30,000 people lost their tempers, broke down the barriers surrounding the flying course, and hissed the officials, who were quite unable to maintain order. Delagrange, however, saved the situation by making a circuit of the course at a height of thirty feet from the ground, which won him rounds of cheering and restored the crowd to good humour. Possibly the smash achieved by Rougier, the famous racing motorist, who crashed his Voisin biplane after Delagrange had made his circuit, completed the enjoyment of the spectators. Delagrange, flying at Argentan in June of 1909, made a flight of four kilometres at a height of sixty feet; for those days this was a noteworthy performance. Contemporary with this was Hubert Latham's flight of an hour and seven minutes on an Antoinette monoplane; this won the adjective 'magnificent' from contemporary recorders of aviation.
Viewing the work of the little group of French experimenters, it is, at this length of time from their exploits, difficult to see why they carried the art as far as they did. There was in it little of satisfaction, a certain measure of fame, and practically no profit--the giants of those days got very little for their pains. Delagrange's experience at the opening of the Juvisy ground was symptomatic of the way in which flight was regarded by the great mass of people--it was a sport, and nothing more, but a sport without the dividends attaching to professional football or horse-racing. For a brief period, after the Rheims meeting, there was a golden harvest to be reaped by the best of the pilots. Henry Farman asked L2,000 for a week's exhibition flying in England, and Paulhan asked half that sum, but a rapid increase in the number of capable pilots, together with the fact that most flying meetings were financial failures, owing to great expense in organisation and the doubtful factor of the weather, killed this goose before many golden eggs had been gathered in by the star aviators. Besides, as height and distance records were broken one after another, it became less and less necessary to pay for entrance to an aerodrome in order to see a flight--the thing grew too big for a mere sports ground.
Long before Rheims and the meeting there, aviation had grown too big for the chronicling of every individual effort. In that period of the first days of conquest of the air, so much was done by so many whose names are now half-forgotten that it is possible only to pick out the great figures and make brief reference to their achievements and the machines with which they accomplished so much, pausing to note such epoch-making events is the London-Manchester flight, Bleriot's Channel crossing, and the Rheims meeting itself, and then passing on beyond the days of individual records to the time when the machine began to dominate the man. This latter because, in the early days, it was heroism to trust life to the planes that were turned out --the 'Demoiselle' and the Antoinette machine that Latham used in his attempt to fly the Channel are good examples of the flimsiness of early types--while in the later period, that of the war and subsequently, the heroism turned itself in a different--and nobler-direction. Design became standardised, though not perfected. The domination of the machine may best be expressed by contrasting the way in which machines came to be regarded as compared with the men who flew them: up to 1909, flying enthusiasts talked of Farman, of Bleriot, of Paulhan, Curtiss, and of other men; later, they began to talk of the Voisin, the Deperdussin, and even to the Fokker, the Avro, and the Bristol type. With the standardising of the machine, the days of the giants came to an end.
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