Aircraft pioneer

Percy Pilcher might have been the first man to make a powered flight in a heavier-than-air craft. If he had lived. 

Percy came to Glasgow as an engineering apprentice at the age of 20, after seven years in the Royal Navy

"He started building glider models in his Byres Road flat," says Riverside Museum curator Neil Johnson-Symington. "He made such a racket that his landlady kicked him out."

But the bug had bitten Percy. As an engineering lecturer at Glasgow University, he began to build and test gliders - the Bat, the Beetle, the Gull and the Hawk. 

He flew the Bat successfully at Cardross, during summer 1895, becoming the first person to make repeated heavier than air flights in Britain. 

Percy's goal was always powered flight. So he had to figure out how to fit an engine to his gliders. The science sounds simple. 

Four forces act on anything in flight. Thrust tries to speed it up. Drag from the air slows it down. Lift from the wings raises it. Weight pulls it back to earth. 

To keep a steady height, lift must equal weight. They need to be balanced forces. For a steady speed, thrust must equal drag. 

But the engineering is tricky. The problem for pioneers like Percy was getting enough lift. Attach an engine to a glider and it becomes a lot heavier. So more lift is needed. Which means much bigger wings. 

With the materials and methods of the time, Percy could not make big wings strong enough.

The solution was to stack wings on top of each other to make biplanes and even triplanes. That gives lots of lift from strong, stubby wings. 

Percy was almost there. He had built a triplane. He had formed a company to make the engines. He had arranged a demonstration to money men in late September 1899. But the day went badly wrong. 

The tail of his trusty Hawk broke and Percy Pilcher plummeted to earth. He died two days later, the first Briton to lose his life in pursuit of powered flight.

No comments:

Post a Comment