Pilots, Planes and Pioneers

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hile the Wright brothers may have been the first to make a sustained, controlled flight, they were just two among hundreds of brave men and women who helped to give the world its wings during the earliest days of aviation. Their Flyer was but one of many historically important aircraft. Below are brief descriptions and photos of some of the most important people and planes, and where available resources and links where you can find more information. In some cases, contributors have supplied expanded histories and biographies. Those are listed at the right and linked below.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M
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Clement Ader of France was a distinguished electrical engineer who helped pioneer the telephone. He also studied birds and bats, and in 1873 built a bird-shaped glider with feathered wings. He made a few tethered accents, then began thinking about powered flight. In 1882, he began work on an airplane and a lightweight steam engine to power it. He called his craft the Eole. It had a 20-horsepower engine, bat-like wings, no rudder, and no elevator. When tested  in 1890,  the 653-pound (296-kilogram) craft flew about 165 feet (50 meters) at a height of 8 inches (20 centimeters) off the ground. It was the first aircraft to take off from level ground under its own power.  In 1892, Ader convinced the French Ministry of War to fund further research. He built a twin-engine craft called the Avion III, and attempted to fly it before official observers in 1897.  It failed to impress those observers, and they cut off funding. Later, after Alberto Santos-Dumont had made a short flight in France, Ader began to claim that his craft had flown almost 1000 feet (304 meters) in 1897. The official report, released many years after the test, says nothing of the kind. It records that the Avion III never completely left the ground, although one or two of its three wheels may have come off.

See also: Airmen & Chauffeurs.


Clement Ader

An artist's conception of the Eole in flight. The actual "flight" was just inches above the ground.

Plans for the Eole.

The Avion III, on display in Paris, France.

An uncovered model of the Eole, showing the bat-like frame of the aircraft.
"Aerodrome A" was a manned aircraft commissioned by the U.S. Army in 1898, as America was going to war with Spain.  The U.S. War Department's Board of Ordinance gave the Smithsonian Institution $50,000 to build a man-carrying airplane that might be used in the war. Samuel P. Langley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian, headed the project. The aircraft, also known as the Great Aerodrome, was based on the designs of smaller tandem-wing powered "aerodromes" that Langley has flown successfully beginning in 1896. Originally, it was planned to test-fly the Aerodrome in 1901, but problems – especially with the motor – delayed the test until 1903. Langley also built a quarter-scale version of the Aerodrome to test the soundness of the design. He tried and failed to fly the model in 1901, but it eventually achieved a successful flight in August 1903, making it the first gasoline-powered aircraft ever to fly, albeit unmanned. The full-scale Aerodrome was ready for testing in October of that year. It was a massive aircraft for its day, with a wingspan of 48 feet (14.8 meters) and a length of 52 feet (16 meters). It weighed 750 pounds (340 kilograms), and had a remarkable five-cylinder radial engine producing 52 horsepower. The Aerodrome was to be piloted by Charles Manly, who also headed the construction team and built the engine. It had no roll control, but it was pitched up and down by a pivoting tail and yawed right and left by a "steering rudder" amidships.  It was intended to be launched by a catapult from the roof of a large houseboat, which doubled as a workshop and storage shed. Langley tried twice to fly the Aerodrome, on 7 October and 8 December 1903. It failed both times, dropping into the Potomac River just south of Washington DC. Langley maintained that the Aerodrome could have flown but was snagged by the catapult on both attempts. Langley died in 1906. The Aerodrome remained in storage until 1914 when Charles D. Walcott, then Secretary of the Smithsonian, sent the remains to Glenn Curtiss in Hammondsport, NY for further tests. Curtiss made significant changes to the airframe, wings, engine, and controls, then managed several hop-flights on 28 May, 2 June, and 5 June 1914. Further changes, including a more powerful motor and modern propeller,  eventually enabled the Aerodrome to fly for 20 miles. Curtiss and the Smithsonian claimed that these flights proved the Aerodrome was airworthy in 1903 and could have flown before the Wright brothers. It was restored to its original configuration and displayed at the Smithsonian in 1918 with a plaque that identified it as the the first powered airplane "capable of sustained flight." This angered Orville Wright who asked the Smithsonian to admit they made significant changes to the aircraft and retract their claims. When they declined to do so, he sent the 1903 Wright Flyer to the Science Museum in Kensington, England in 1928 in protest. The Smithsonian eventually recanted, and the Flyer was returned to America in 1948. The Langley Aerodrome is now on display at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

For an expanded history of the Aerodrome A and its test flights, see The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy.
 


The Aerodrome was built in Langley's workshop in the "South Shed" annex to the Smithsonian.

The Aerodrome was launched from a houseboat floating on the Potomac River, south of Washington DC.

The first launch attempt on 7 October 1903. The aircraft simply slid into the water.

The Aerodrome in the Potomac River after the 7 October 1903 launch attempt.

The Aerodrome in flight over Lake Keuka near Hammondsport in September

A three view of the Langley Aerodrome A.

The airframe of the Aerodrome, showing the cockpit, engine, and tail. By shifting his weight along the bench, the pilot could adjust the aircraft's center of gravity.

The Aerodrome in place on its catapult. Giant springs shot the aircraft forward, then released it over the water.

The second launch attempt on 8 December 1903. This time the back wings collapsed.

The Aerodrome being fitted for pontoons at the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in 1914. Curtiss did away with the catapult and launched the Aerodrome from the water like a seaplane.

The Langley Aerodrome A was restored to its original 1903 configuration and now hangs in the Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex to the Air and Space Museum.

 
Ernest Archdeacon of France was wealthy lawyer, sportsman, and aviation enthusiast. He built several experimental gliders, mostly based on Wright designs. More important, he offered several lucrative prizes to encourage the development of aviation, especially in France. In May 1903, he and Ferdinand Ferber created the Aviation Committee in the Aero Club du France to kindle French interest in heavier-than-air flight. His hope was to encourage young French aviators to more daring deeds and beat the Americans -- in particular, the Wright brothers -- into the air.
 

Ernest Archdeacon

The 1905 Archdeacon floatplane-glider was designed by Archdeacon, but built and flown by Gabriel Voison.
William Avery of Chicago, Illinois was a carpenter in Octave Chanute's neighborhood. He built a multi-wing glider, the Katydid for Chanute in 1896 and joined Chanute's band of aviation enthusiasts at the Indiana Dunes to test the craft. Later, he flew the Chanute-Herring glider in exhibition flight at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

 

Avery's Katydid at the Indiana Dunes in the summer of 1896.

Avery about to launch a Chanute-Herring glider in St. Louis in 1904.

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