Unbelievable Flying Objects

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efore the Wright brothers, a good many aspiring aviators thought they had stumbled on the secret of flight and built flying machines to test their ideas. None of these were successful, of course, and quite a few of them were so far off base that, looking back from the advantage of our 21rst-century viewpoint,  we wonder how the builders could possibly have thought they might fly. Even after the Wright brothers showed the world how to build an airplane, strange contraptions of dubious airworthiness continued to appear. We have collected a few of these here for your enjoyment and edification.




1875 "Aerial Steamer" -- a tandem-wing monoplane by Thomas Moy. It was unmanned and traveled in a wide circle, tethered to central post. During one demonstration, its 3-hp engine lifted the 120-lb. craft 6 inches off the ground.


In 1904, inventor Schmutz tried to cycle aloft in this pedal-powered airplane. He failed, but five years later "aviettes" -- bicycles with glider wings -- would become a brief fad in Europe and America as cyclists completed to make the longest hop-flights.


In 1906, Trajan Vuia made 11 hops in this tractor monoplane. Although it did not achieve sustained flight, the aircraft influenced successful designs that came afterwards.

An idea ahead of its time -- this ejection seat was first tested in 1910 on a monoplane. It worked -- sort of. But it was completely impractical for a biplane -- the pilot would hit the top wing.
The 1910 Burke "Seagull" had spectacularly curved wings patterned after its namesake.
This imitation of nature came to naught, however. The Seagull refused to leave the ground.

The 1910 Cooley Airship looked more like a yacht than an aircraft.

In fact, the only feature that marked the Cooley Airship as an airplane and not a boat was that it had huge wings. It flew about as well as a boat, too.

The 1910 Fleche may have been the first "variable wing" airplane. The wings folded out for for flight, in for storage. It spent most of its time in storage.

This 1910 "Hydroaeroplane" was meant to take off from and land on the water. It did neither.

The Demouveaux was more of a parachute than an airplane -- four wings sprouted from a diamond shape hub in which the pilot hung and watched his life flash before his eyes. It was apparently meant to float down on the wind much the same as maple seeds.

Another idea before its time -- the huge chimney-looking thing on the 1911 McCormick-Dearing "Paraplane" was actually a ballistic parachute to save the pilot from crashing. It was never used since the plane refused to fly.

The 1910 Wyndham was sported tandem delta-shaped wings.

The wings, however, would not support the aircraft. It never flew.

Looking like a winged rocket, this tiny monoplane by an unknown builder is displayed against what seem to be Wright biplane wings.

The corrugated wing of this craft was probably intended to add strength. Unfortunately, it did not add enough lift.

Although John J. Montgomery built some of the earliest successful gliders (perhaps as early as 1883), this -- his one powered airplane built in 1910 -- was not. Although based on a proven glider design, it would not fly. Montgomery went back to building successful gliders in 1911.
Biplanes and Triplanes

In 1905,  New York lawyer Israel Ludlow tried and failed to fly this biplane. It climbed into the air briefly, but then crashed.


A side view of Ludlow's 1905 airplane. The man standing inside the aircraft in the center of the photo is Hamilton, the unfortunate pilot. Israel Ludlow is to the right in a white shirt.


Morris Bokor's triplane actually won a $500 prize from the Aeronautic Society of New York in 1909 for excellence of construction, even though it failed to fly.

The 1910 Seddon was a huge tandem biplane that from the side looked like a collection of overgrown hula-hoops. Almost every structural part on the aircraft was bent, many of them in a full circle.

Seddon's idea, apparently, was that the bent wooden parts would act like springs, absorbing the impact of a crash of a hard landing with little damage to the airframe. The concept was never proved since the aircraft never flew.

After building a helicopter that refused to fly, the energetic Wilbur R. Kimball built this biplane the very next year, in 1909. Its eight propellers, turned by a single engine, failed to lift it off the ground.

Gustave Whitehead claimed to have flown a small monoplane in 1901 and 1902. But instead of building on this supposed success, he made a series of gliders, then began building a biplane in 1906

Whitehead's partner in this venture was Stanley Y. Beach, son of the editor of Scientific American magazine, who contributed $10,000. The biplane was completed in 1908, but never flew.

The 1910 Huntington biplane showed many odd angles and curves -- but no tendency to fly.

The 1909 Puissex was yet another attempt to cylce into the air. Initially built as an "aviette" -- a bicycle with glider wings -- the builder added small engine to see how far it would go. It went nowhere.

We're not quite sure what the curved top wing of the Sloan "Bi-Curve" was supposed to do for the flight characteristics of this 1910 aircraft. Apparently, very little. It had no flight characteristics.

The 1911 Geary Circular Triplane was an updated version of d'Equevilly's multi-wing design which produced exactly the same disappointing results.

Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun, was also an enthusiastic (if unsuccessful) aircraft designer.

In the 1890s, Maxim had built a huge biplane "test rig" that made an unplanned flight, followed by an unplanned crash. In 1910, he tried again with yet another mammoth biplane with a wingspan approaching 100 ft.

Maxim's Mammoth even had "bumpers" on the front to absorb the impact of a crash landing. There was no need. It never crashed -- it never even left the ground.

Yet another reincarnation of an overly optimistic design -- a bicycle airplane.

This biplane was built by Franz Miller of Turin, Italy for aspiring pilot Mario Cobianchi. It was among the first airplanes to attempt to fly in Italy.

Unfortunately, it did not fly, although it managed a brief bounce into the air. That was as close to flight at Mario got.

If you can't get off the ground with a bicycle, maybe a motorcycle will help. This apparently was the theory behind the "Negplane."

This flimsy-looking triplane was apparently meant to be peddled into the air by two pilots – pioneer aviations' answer to the tandem bicycle.
Multi-Winged Craft

In 1893, Horatio Phillips tested this unmanned "venetian blind" aircraft tethered to a circular track. The back wheels rose 2 to 3 feet above the ground, but the front wheels did not lift off.


If at first you don't succeed...Horatio Philips tried again in 1904 gas-powered multi-wing machine. It hopped briefly, but the wings collapsed before it achieved true flight.


And again. In 1907, Horatio Phillips crammed a buh-zillion slender wings in four sturdy frames. This time, it worked -- he flew about 500 feet, and that was enough for him.

It's hard to tell whether this 1908 flying machine has multiple wings or just a bunch of bed sheets stretched on a single frame. Needless to say, it didn't fly.

Even great minds occasionally produce bad ideas. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, was convinced that this 900-lb. "tetrahedral" box kite would make a good airplane.

Bell was, of course, wrong. Pilot J.A.D. McCurdy could not coax it off the ice of the lake that he used as a runway. It finally did fly in 1912 in a much modified form just so Bell could "show the skeptics."

The 1908 Bousson had several tiers of wings which could not sustain it in flight for more than brief hops

The 1911 Garcia "Polyplane" looked for all the world as if the builder had stood back from the fuselage and threw wings at it, letting them stick wherever they landed.

The 1913 Air Yacht offered passengers every amenity except aerial transportation.

In 1908, the Marquis d'Equevilly designed an aircraft that looked a great deal like a vegetable shredder and flew almost as well.

Jerome S. Zerbe attempted to fly this tiered collection of wings in Sand Diego in 1910. It hit a pothole in the field and collapsed.

Undeterred, Zerbe built this new, improved model -- which also failed to fly.

The 1912 Huntington, with six pairs of arched wings looks impressive even if it never flew.

In 1914, Huntington did manage to get a smaller plane off the ground with only two pairs of wings.
Flapping Wings

In 1890, E.P. Frost attempted to fly this 650-lb., steam-powered ornithopter He thought that the goose-feathered wings might give it enough lift. They didn't.


1900 Clark Bi-Wing, an ornithopter with two sets of flapping wings. Shown here with the wings uncovered.


The 1908 Collomb flying machine was a biplane ornithopter. The two extra wings did little to help it fly.

The 1911 Bartlett Flapping Wing was probably the largest ornithopter built during the pioneer aviation period. Since size made no difference, the craft never left the ground.

Note the frilly sun shade over the cockpit of this early ornithopter (the precise date is unknown). If style could be substituted for lift, this craft might have flown.

The Marceau "Butterfly" was yet another ornithopter that failed to fly. The pilot blamed this on the lack on an engine. Duh...

The Twinning ornithopter was built comparatively late in the pioneer era -- well past the time when the builder should have known better.

An unsuccessful ornithopter by an unidentified German builder circa 1908.

Although it was not a successful flying machine, the 1908 Cornu helicopter lifted itself and its pilot off the ground very briefly -- the first helicopter to do so.


Powered by a beefy eight-cylinder engine, the tiny 1908 Williams helicopter still refused to fly -- which may have been a good thing for Williams.


In 1909, M. Vuitton built this helicopter with counter-rotating propellers. The torque of one propeller canceled the torque from the other. Good idea, but not necessary. The machine never got into the air where torque might have caused a problem.

After spending fifteen years making airplanes that wouldn't fly, in 1911 Gustave Whitehead turned to making helicopters that wouldn't fly.

More is not necessarily better. In 1908, Wilbur R. Kimball built this helicopter. A 50-hp engine turned 20 propellers.

Despite all that whirling, however, Kimball's whilrybird refused to fly.
What the Heck?

In 1908, aircraft builder Bertin added a freely-rotating horizontal propeller to a biplane to give it more lift. The "Bertin Autogyro" was not successful, though later autogyros would be.


The 1910 Shultz, constructed of linen and bamboo, required twelve years to build -- proof that you need more than persistence to succeed in aviation.


Although Louis Bleriot eventually became one of the most successful pioneer aviators and airplane builders, he made many false starts. This strange craft with tandem oval wings, built in 1906, was his third unsuccessful aircraft.

Built by Texas preacher Burrel Cannon, this paddle-wheel biplane may have made a short hop of 160 feet in 1902. Then again, it may have simply been lifted off the ground briefly by the gusty breezes that blow over the plains surrounding Pittsburg, TX. It never flew again until it was blown off a railroad car in 1904.

The drum-like wings of the Givaud were intended to protect the pilot. They did their job admirably by preventing the aircraft from leaving the ground.

You have to wonder what the builder was thinking. You might wonder if the builder was thinking at all.

The craft behind these determined-looking builders looks as if they might have borrowed a few ideas from the Ezekiel Airship -- including its fondness for the ground.

The Villard looked more like an umbrella than an airplane.

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