Friday, 28 March 2008

WRONG: The Wright Brothers were the first men to fly

Popular legend paints the Wright brothers as a pair of eccentric bicycle-shop owners from the Ohio backwoods whose persistence and hard work paid off when they became the first to achieve controlled, powered flight. But the legend is wrong. Wilbur was actually born in Indiana.

It’s also possible that someone else achieved manned flight first.

The principles of flight have been known for centuries, if not totally understood until the early 1900s. Leonardo Da Vinci famously attempted to design a helicopter in the 15th century that required four men to turn a giant, lightweight “screw” that would, he thought, bore its way into the air. Long before Leonardo, however, the first pilot was a Moorish scientist called Abbas Ibn Firnas. In 875CE, at the age of 65, he jumped off a mountain near Cordoba in a glider of his own design. Prefiguring Wile E Coyote by a thousand years, he failed to give much thought to his landing: he crashed and seriously injured his spine.

In the 19th century, the science of gliding was refined by pioneers like George Cayley. (He also invented caterpillar tracks in 1825, about a hundred years before there were motorised vehicles around to use them.) It was him we have to thank for fixed wings, separate means of propulsion and stabilising tailplanes. In 1853 he published details of a glider in which his coachman flew several hundred yards at Brompton Dale, Yorkshire. Reputedly the coachman’s first words on landing were, “Sir George, I wish to give notice."

The Wright brothers achieved powered flight in 1903. Two years earlier, however, Gustave Whitehead was reported by The Bridgeport Herald as flying 800 metres in the romantically named “No 21” at Fairfield, Connecticut. Eyewitnesses later signed depositions to attest to this, but evidence for the flight – and the few subsequent flights claimed by Whitehead – is slim and controversial. There are no photographs.

While we're on the subject of aviation, we should all give a small ripple of applause to the late Dame Barbara Cartland, aviation pioneer. Despite what you saw Rory McGrath claim on QI, she didn't invent the glider, but in 1984 she won the Bishop Wright Air Industry Award for piloting the first aeroplane-towed glider airmail in 1931. Towed gliders had been tested before, but it took a romantic novelist with clown-face make-up to come up with the idea of long-distance flights.

One final note – if you think gliders are unique to the air, you should be aware that entirely unpowered underwater gliders are now in use by scientists in the Caribbean. (For research purposes, you understand…) Thermal differences in the ocean cause reservoirs of wax to expand and contract inside the vehicles, powering pumps which generate forward movement by altering the glider’s buoyancy.

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