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.



Alberto Santos Dumont was born in Brazil, then emigrated to France in 1891 with his parents and the profits of their coffee plantation. A dapper playboy, a talented mechanic, and a natural engineer, he began racing motorized tricycles, then turned to ballooning, then to dirigibles. He delighted Parisians by dropping down unexpectedly from the skies in his primitive gasbags to salute the President of France, attend a children's birthday party, or just enjoy a cup of coffee.  In 1901, he piloted his Airship No. 6 around the Eiffel Tower, winning a prize of 100,000 francs -- all of which he gave to his mechanics.

In 1904 -- a year after the Wright brothers had made their first powered flight-- Santos Dumont turned his attention to heavier-than-air flying. He began with a glider, then built an unsuccessful helicopter in 1905. In 1906, he built a  strange-looking flying machine -- a tail-first pusher biplane of what the French had begun to call the type du Wright, loosely based on the Wright biplane plans that had been published in several European magazines. His design was influenced by other sources as well; the wings were set in a pronounced dihedral like Penaud models and divided into "cells" with side curtains like a Hargrave kite. The box-like elevator and rudder protruded in front of the wings like the head of a duck in flight. It was promptly dubbed a canard (French for "duck"), and the name was incorporated into the growing aeronautical lexicon.

Santos Dumont called the airplane the 14-bis, meaning "14-encore" since the airplane made its first appearance suspended from the belly of Santos Dumont's No. 14 dirigible.  He flew it without the dirigible on 13 September 1906, making a hop of between 23 and 43 feet (7 and 13 meters), depending on who you talked to. On 27 October, he managed to fly 197 feet (60 meters). Then, on 12 November, he set the first aviation record in Europe, flying 722 feet (220 meters) in 21-1/2 seconds with members of the Aero-Club du France in attendance. This won Santos Dumont a prize of 1500 francs for making the first flight in Europe over 100 meters, and because he was observed  by officials from what would become the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (the designated keeper of aviation records), he was credited with making the first official powered flight in Europe.

Santos Dumont flew the 14-bis for one more brief hop on 4 April 1907, then abandoned it as a technological dead end. He turned the design around so the canard was in back and made a tractor biplane with plywood wings, the 15-bis. This, however, refused to fly. He built one more dirigible -- actually a marriage of a dirigible and an airplane, the No. 16. This, unfortunately was destroyed on the ground before it could be test flown. Then he turned to monoplanes and produced three unsuccessful models, but the fourth – No. 19 or the Demoiselle, first flown in 1909 – was a winner. Tiny and quick, it was the first practical light aircraft, although pilots reported that it was a handful in the air.  In a grand and magnanimous gesture, Santos-Dumont offered the plans to the public free of charge. They were published worldwide – in America, they appeared in Popular Mechanics enabling hopeful young aviators of limited means to get into the air inexpensively.  In this way, Santos Dumont and his Demoiselle helped fuel the phenomenal growth of aviation in the years before World War I.

Unfortunately, the Demoiselle was Santos Dumont's swan song . Shortly after its introduction, he was stricken with multiple sclerosis, dropped out of aviation, and retired to Brazil in 1916. He committed suicide there in 1932.

For a discussion of the controversy caused by Brazil's insistence that Santos Dumont deserves the title of first to fly, see also Santos Dumont.

Alberto Santos Dumont.

Not at of Santos Dumont's airship adventures ended well. During a flight in 1901, he collided with a tall building and had to be rescued.

Santos Dumont tests the controls of his first aircraft with it suspended from his No. 14 airship.

Santos Dumont obtained a 50 hp engine and on 13 September 1906, flew the 14 bis for the first time.

The 15 bis looked similar to the 14 bis, but was intended to fly with its wings forward.

After the failure of the 15 bis, Santos Dumont designed a small monoplane. By 1909, he had developed a practical airplane he called the Demoiselle (dragonfly).

Santos Dumont piloting the Demoiselle in 1909.

Santos Dumont at the controls of one of his early airships.

Santos Dumont in his No. 6 rounds the Eiffel Tower on his way to winning the Deutsch Prize in 1901.

Walking the 14 bis through the streets of Paris on 21 August 1906. The first attempt to fly was unsuccessful; with only a 24-horsepower engine the airplane was underpowered.

An operational replica of the 14 bis in flight in Brazil.

Santos Dumont managed a short hop in the 15 bis in 1907, but it ended badly.

Santos Dumont did not patent the Demoiselle, but instead shared the design with the world. These plans were published in  1910 issue of Popular Mechanics.

A restored Demoiselle.
George Spratt of Pennsylvania was a doctor turned aeronautical enthusiast and scientist. He contacted Octave Chanute in 1899, writing him about an apparatus he has designed to measure the lift of air foils and his model glider. He had some success with the lift-measuring device but none with the glider. Chanute wangled Spratt an invitation to visit the Wright in Kitty Hawk in 1901 and watch them fly. The Wrights liked Spratt, and he and Orville spent much time discussing various ways to measure lift and drag. Some of Spratt's ideas were incorporated in the "drift balance," an instrument they used to find the ratio of lift to drag, in the winter of 1901 and 1902. Spratt also visited the Wrights at Kitty Hawk in 1902 and 1903, and corresponded with both Wilbur and Orville over many years.

Spratt went on to develop a stall-proof, spin-proof airplane design called the "Control Wing." It featured a unique method of aircraft control. The main wing was "floating" – the pilot changed the angle of incidence to climb, descend, and turn. Spratt also pioneered the triangle-shaped "control bar," now used on many hang gliders.

George Spratt first visited the Wrights in 1901 at their camp in Kitty Hawk. He's seated on the far Wright, behind Wilbur.

George Spratt flying and early model of his "Control Wing" aircraft.

Spratt's "tangential measuring machine" measured the ratio of lift to drag. The Wrights' "drift balance" performed the same task, but the mechanism was different.

This flying boat on the June 1962 cover of Popular Mechanics features a Spratt floating wing.
John Stringfellow designed a lightweight 30-horsepower steam engine for Samuel Henson's 1843 Aerial Steam Carriage and became his partner in the Aerial Transit Company. After their first model failed to fly in 1847 and Henson left for America, Stringfellow carried on  for a short time and built and improved model with a better engine. Reports are contradictory as to whether this model actually flew, but it's clear that it did better the the first. Stringfellow made his last model in 1868 – a triplane which could only make descending glides and could not sustain itself in flight. However, the design itself was extremely influential and became the model for the successful biplanes and triplanes that would follow.

Also see:  The First Airplanes and Powering Up.

John Stringfellow.

Stringfellow's monoplane, first tested in 1848, is considered by some historians to be the first successful powered flying machine.

Stringfellow designed this light-weight steam engine to power his models.

Stringfellow's triplane model was displayed at the Crystal Palace in London in 1868 and influenced aircraft design for decades afterwards.

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