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24 September 2014
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Dr Bill Brooks preparing to fly a replica of Pilcher's plane.
BBC Two, Thursday 11 December 2003, 9pm
Percy Pilcher's Flying Machine
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Percy Pilcher's Flying Machine - transcript

NARRATOR (JACK FORTUNE): One hundred years ago, the entire course of human history was transformed by one of the greatest inventions of all time. Powered flight. From the Wright brothers first flight in 1903 history has marvelled as the great pioneers like Amy Johnson, Chuck Jaeger, Uri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong went to the edge in their exploration of the skies. But what of the name Percy Pilcher? Today he lies forgotten. But he could have been more famous than them all. Because Percy Pilcher could have been the very first person to fly. Tonight Horizon tells the untold story of Percy Pilcher and rebuilds his amazing flying machine to see how close he came to being the greatest aviator of them all.

NARRATOR: He had already defied gravity and soared in the winds. At the age of twenty eight, a young British engineer by the name of Percy Pilcher was setting off to capture the biggest prize of them all. In 1899 a full four years before the Wright brothers made the first ever flight Pilcher had designed and built what he hoped would be the world’s first ever powered aircraft. Success would have made him one of the most famous names of our age. Yet just as he was about to test his aircraft for the first time fate intervened. Percy Pilcher was prevented from ever flying it, and his original design was lost to history. It is one of histories most intriguing puzzles. Could Percy Pilcher have beaten the Wright brothers and claimed one of the greatest prizes of modern science by being the first person to fly? There is only one way to answer that question to discover what kind of flying machine he had designed, to build it and to put it to the test. To complete Pilcher’s work Horizon brought together a formidable team. Chief designer and test pilot Bill Brooks of Pegasus Aviation, designs microlight aircraft for a living. If Pilcher’s plane could fly, Bill was the man to fly it.

DR BILL BROOKS: I’m happy yeah er, forty three kilos of thrust.

NARRATOR: Aviation historian Philip Jarrett would lead the investigation in to discovering the original details of Pilcher’s design.

PHILIP JARRETT (Aviation Historian): Well we have this drawing you see as well. Again we can see the panels there but the spar’s disappeared. We have a little bit of a main spar.

NARRATOR: And Professor Ian Pole director of Cranfield College of Aeronautics would bring the expertise of the school to the process of actually building the aircraft.

Prof IAN POLL (Cranfield College of Aeronautics): The essence of this task is, is that we’re finishing Pilcher’s job off. By the time we go out on to the grass airfield we should be pretty certain that this can be done.

NARRATOR: Percy Pilcher’s story began in the age of steam. By 1894 humankind had already conquered the land and mastered the oceans. Yet one final frontier remained, the dream of flight. If you could only master the skies you would have the power truly to transform the modern world. The race was on to win this greatest of scientific prizes. To build a plane that could not only get in to the air but then stay there, all without crashing. Across the globe an elite band of scientists and engineers set off on this technologies last great adventure. In America the Wright Brothers and Octave Chanute. In Germany Otto Lilienthal. And in Britain the great engineer Sir Harem Maxim.

CHRISTOPHER CHANT (Aviation Writer): The great pioneers were sometimes seen as mad men. They were sometimes seen as, as great men who were touched by an element of madness. And sometimes they were seen as, as practical realists who could actually create something. There was a real feeling that, that now there was a real chance of being able to do it. They would be able to get off the ground, they would get in to a third dimension. So it could happen.

NARRATOR: It was this elite club of pioneers that the young Percy Pilcher now joined. His days as a naval apprentice had given him a grounding in mechanical engineering. He soon fixed on flight as the great goal of his career.

PHILIP JARRETT: I think he was just totally fascinated with the idea of flying. I think he knew the risks that were involved and he was er prepared to take them.

NARRATOR: But the problem faced by all the pioneers was that they had almost no idea of how to do it. There was no science of aerodynamics, no detailed equations that would allow men to do what birds did so effortlessly. Get in to the air, stay there under power, and land safely.

CHRISTOPHER CHANT: The problem with the early stages of flight was that the pioneers were working in a, a relative vacuum of scientific thinking. So they had the wherewithal to start thinking about the structures for their aircraft. But how to make their aircraft fly was a different matter entirely. They had to start on a clean sheet of paper basis.

NARRATOR: As Pilcher began working on these problems, he discovered that one man had gone further than anyone in unlocking the secrets of flight. In Germany Otto Lilienthal had made a systematic study of birds. And had succeeded in translating his observations in to a series of simple but elegant gliders. Where everyone else had failed Lilienthal alone had actually managed to get in to the air to fly and to land safely.

CHRISTOPHER CHANT: Lilienthal had succeeded in flying, that’s the, the crux of the matter and he was the man that any sensible European was going to look to for a lead.

NARRATOR: Pilcher went to Germany to meet him, the encounter would change the course of his life. Lilienthal had discovered that it was the curved shape of birds’ wings that was the key to the secret of flight. Apply that shape to flying machines and you would harness the force that allowed birds to soar freely. What he understood was the crucial scientific principle underpinning all aircraft. The force of lift. Lilienthal had realised that the critical factor in getting off the ground is how the shape of the wing affects the flow of air across it.

Prof IAN POLL: Underneath the aerofoil the curvature of the aerofoil deflects the air stream downwards. What’s perhaps not so intuitive is that over the top of the aerofoil the air does not go straight on. If that were to happen then you would clearly create some kind of a void here and what actually happens when you try and create a void is that more air rushes in and fills that void. So what happens in reality the air over the top surface is also bent. To do that the aerofoil needs to apply a force to the air, needs to push it downwards. By Newton’s third law therefore the air pushes back on the wing and generates the force that we know as lift.

NARRATOR: the historian Philip Jarrett began to investigate how Pilcher had translated Lilienthal’s work on lift in to his own powered flying machine. But when it came to getting details of Pilcher’s design there was very little to go on.

PHILIP JARRETT: Its configuration when I started looking at it was something of a mystery. The trouble is no drawings and no photographs of the complete machine have ever been seen.

NARRATOR: So in the search for clues Jarrett decided to investigate the first machines Pilcher had built after meeting Lilienthal. He found that like his German mentor Pilcher’s early designs were not for powered aircraft at all but gliders. Pilcher had made a succession of what he called soaring machines, each more daring than the last. The bat was quickly followed by the beetle. Pilcher was finally beginning to fly.

PHILIP JARRETT: He actually began to make reasonably significant flights. We’re not talking about flights lasting minutes, we’re talking about flights of seconds, but er even so he’s staying in the air.

NARRATOR: Step by step Pilcher was improving his designs. Helped by his sister Ella he began work on a new soaring machine. It would be the culmination of all his glider work to date. He christened it The Hawk. But before The Hawk could prove itself something happened to bring home just how dangerous the new science of aviation could be. In 1896 there came tragic news from Germany. Otto Lilienthal, the man who had taught him so much, had been killed when he had lost control of his glider.

PERCY PILCHER (VOICE OVER): Unfortunately he came to grief, and so I have been trying to do justice to him as a pupil, not in coming to grief I hope.

NARRATOR: With his new Hawk design Pilcher now set out to prove to the world that he was Lilienthal’s fitting successor. Before an invited audience in a field in Kent, Pilcher flew The Hawk over a record two hundred and fifty yards. It was a sensation. The science journal Nature brought news of his flight to the wider community of pioneers.

CHRISTOPHER CHANT: Pilcher’s record glide in The Hawk was of, of very considerable importance because it made Pilcher the leader in his field. He had now become the man to catch. He had overtaken what Lilienthal had achieved so aviation had pushed forward another step.

NARRATOR: Percy Pilcher had mastered the first scientific principle of flight, lift. But it was only the beginning. The real prize, true freedom to fly wherever you wanted, still eluded him. What Pilcher needed was power.

PERCY PILCHER (VOICE OVER): Soaring machines are excellent schooling machines, and that is all they are meant to be, until power, in the shape of an engine, is added. One can best compare them to bicycles having no cranks.

NARRATOR: The trouble was in the 1890s there were no suitable engines. The most widely available were all steam driven. They had an obvious drawback that made them utterly unsuitable for flight. They weighed too much. But Pilcher was one of the very first to grasp the significance of a new invention that was just what was needed. The internal combustion engine was promising to revolutionise transport. For the first time here was an engine that was both powerful and lightweight. Pilcher realised it was the breakthrough that could transform powered flight. He now set about building his own engine to fit on to a new version of The Hawk.

PERCY PILCHER (VOICE OVER):I’ve got an engine in hand of about four horsepower which I think should be enough to keep me in horizontal flight and I hope in time what are now soaring machines will develop in to bona fide flying machines.

NARRATOR: As Philip Jarrett went about his research he found drawings for a new powered version of The Hawk. Pilcher’s two cylinder engine would sit above the pilot driving a propeller at the rear of the plane. But then Jarrett discovered that Pilcher had got stuck on a problem that he simply hadn’t anticipated.

PHILIP JARRETT: The dilemma Pilcher faced is er a very real problem. If you put an engine in to the machine you increase its total weight.

NARRATOR: Weight on The Hawk was already critical. Even a lightweight engine would add to it considerably. If this heavier hawk was to fly it would now need more lift. There seemed to be only one possible solution.

Prof IAN POLL : The lift basically er is related to the surface area of the wing and as you add more weight you are demanding a bigger and bigger wing.

NARRATOR: the obvious thing to do would be to extend the wing. But that would have consequences.

Prof IAN POLL : That puts more pressure on to the structural part of the design and so a bigger wing is a heavier wing. And therefore you need more wing and you get in to this cycle of, of, of a decreasing spiral, um which doesn’t necessarily have a solution, you don’t arrive at a wing which is capable of carrying the pilot, the engine and the wings own structure.

NARRATOR: It seemed an intractable problem. It would be impossible to make a wing that was big enough, light enough and strong enough to carry an engine all at the same time. Pilcher was stuck, his cherished Hawk design would never deliver a powered aircraft. Pilcher’s dream of powered flight had reached a dead end. He needed a new direction, but which way to go? And then one day, quite out of the blue, came the beginnings of an answer. Pilcher received a letter from three thousand miles away.

OCTAVE CHANUTE (VOICE OVER): I should be very glad to hear from you and to exchange views. I believe success will come only through a process of evolution and that the present investigators can only hope to be remembered as having pointed the way, yours truly, Octave Chanute.

NARRATOR: Octave Chanute was one of America’s leading aviation pioneers. He had read of Pilcher’s landmark flight in The Hawk in 1897.

CHRISTOPHER CHANT: One of the key figures in the early success of aviation towards powered flight is Octave Chanute who is the great disseminator of information. And Pilcher was very, very fortunate that quite without solicitation Chanute wrote to him and offered to share data with him.

NARRATOR: Pilcher began corresponding with the American pioneer, who had been working on the flight problem but in a promising new direction. It would revolutionise his entire thinking. Chanute's idea was as ingenious as it was simple. Instead of one big wing, stack several smaller ones on top of one another. That way you got more surface area but with a lightweight robust design.

Prof IAN POLL: Chanute provided the, the solution for him because he could arrange the extra area in such a way that by using cross bracing he could produce a stiff strong structure without adding the extra structure weight. So Chanute’s solution saved the weight growth as the wing area required got bigger and bigger.

NARRATOR: In the archives of The Royal Aeronautical Society Philip Jarrett discovered how inspired by Chanute, Pilcher had designed a four wing multiplane to be called The Duck. But Pilcher never built it. Instead Jarrett found that he’d made a number of significant modifications to his design. There were enough tantalising fragments to piece together details of the new flying machine.

PHILIP JARRETT: We have Pilcher’s preferred power plant installation. We have the quadraplane drawing and we have some later drawings of parts, one half wing of the finished plane. So we have a specification, a basic specification.

NARRATOR: One clue above all was critical. Rather than four wings the new plane would have three, a triplane. Philip Jarrett was now sure this is what Percy Pilcher’s flying machine would have looked like. April 2003, the headquarters of the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. It was the team’s first chance to see the results of Philip Jarrett’s historical research.

PHILIP JARRETT: We have this drawing you see as well. So this could have been the one, and the fabric runs round it.

DR BILL BROOKS (Pegasus Aviation and Mainair Sports): Is this the wing route?

PHILIP JARRETT: Yes, well this is the centre, part of the centre section.

NARRATOR: This was the first step on the road, to answering whether or not Percy Pilcher could have been the first person to fly.

DR BILL BROOKS: These cut-outs in the wing just look.

PHILIP JARRETT: Yes.

DR BILL BROOKS: Look crazy, I mean.

PHILIP JARRETT: Yeah well they come from Chanute, um there’s Chanute's inspirational quadraplane.

Prof IAN POLL : Which we couldn’t quite fathom.

PHILIP JARRETT: And the Chanute machine did have rather strange panel, panelled wings. Um but er.

Prof IAN POLL We don't have any elevators on this do we?

PHILIP JARRETT: No, no elevators.

DR BILL BROOKS: Purely weight shift.

Prof IAN POLL : Crikey.

DR BILL BROOKS: Yeah it’s really strange because the machine itself um looks like it will fly but there are big gaps in it which I’m bothered about.

NARRATOR: To help answer that fundamental question, will it fly, Bill Brooks decided to build a scale model of the triplane.

DR BILL BROOKS: Ah stalled. Pilcherdised again.

NARRATOR: The triplane model flew, just about. But there was clearly a problem. The angle of decent was far too steep.

DR BILL BROOKS: Four, five, six, it’s hitting the ground about here, so I think that the angle of decent is about three to one, and er that’s fairly poor performance. That’s a little bit better than a brick.

NARRATOR: It seemed that for all the ingenuity of Pilcher’s design something wasn’t right. The problem identified by Bill Brooks was one of lift. At Cranfield the team decided to run a wind tunnel test to get to the bottom of what was wrong with the triplane’s lift.

Prof IAN POLL : The Pilcher plane, it’s an aeroplane that is operated on the very limits of Bill’s ability to fly. Because we’re close to limits we need to be more confident about the numbers we’re actually dealing with.

NARRATOR: Ian Pole then wrangled with the results from the wind tunnel test. It was decision time for Pilcher’s triplane design.

Prof IAN POLL: The analysis tells us er some good news and some bad news. Um the good news is that the, the triplane behaves very much like a conventional aeroplane, in fact surprisingly so. Um I expected it not, not to be as well behaved as it is. Ah that’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s telling us that we probably need more wing area than, than we have on the original design, ah because we haven’t got, really got enough lift for the speeds at which we aim to operate.

NARRATOR: the cause of the lift problem lay in something bewildering about Pilcher’s design. Inspired by Chanute, he designed each wing to have triangular cut-outs slashing the wing area and so the lift. Something he’d never done on his earlier gliders.

Prof IAN POLL: From the very beginning we were puzzled about the er, the need for the wing cut-outs, and since we haven’t really come up with any good explanation for having them there the simplest way of increasing the, the wing area is to fill in those gaps.

NARRATOR: Bill Brooks decided to close the cutouts on his scale model, boosting the wing area by twelve percent. The team believed they were justified in doing this as Pilcher had always flown with a complete wing on his earlier designs.

DR BILL BROOKS: I don't think that it’s diverting too much from historical accuracy to get rid of these very big gaps. It appears to me that Pilcher would have discovered in one or two days of testing that er chopping half his wing area away was a bad idea on a foot launched flying machine. And so I think that we’ll start off with full covering. Pray that it doesn’t go left. Pray that it doesn’t go right too much. There’s Percy Pilcher himself. Let’s see what we’ve got now. Oh perfect.

Prof IAN POLL: High we go, oh, oh, oh. You're fighting a losing battle here.

DR BILL BROOKS: No he’s alright, he’s alright. Oh cripes, ahhh, whoa.

DR BILL BROOKS: Um, I think there’s a flying machine in there somewhere. With the cut-outs gone, the wing areas increased and we get slower stall speeds, um I’ve had to increase the tail um area a bit in order to get it to be stable and pitch. But compared with the Wright Brothers Flyer for example this is a much more viable aircraft configuration, and in fact it’s quite advanced in my view. It actually looks something like an aeroplane.

NARRATOR: To power the triplane the team chose a small modern engine. Leaving Bill Brooks one final task, finding a propeller. Before the invention of the jet engine propellers were the only way to push an aircraft through the air. But in the 1890s no one had ever made one before. The science museum at Wroughton has one of the earliest examples. It is thought to have been Pilcher’s inspiration.

DR BILL BROOKS: Ah.

MUSEUM WORKER: Well here it is Bill, Maxim’s propeller.

DR BILL BROOKS: Well the diameter looks to me to be around fifteen feet.

MUSEUM WORKER: It’s er actually seventeen feet, ten inches in diameter, from tip to tip.

DR BILL BROOKS: That’s more than half the span of our triplane so um.

NARRATOR: The vast propeller was built by Pilcher’s one time employer Sir Hiram Maxim, for the colossal and never to fly Kite of War. It was clear the design would have to be radically adapted if it was to work on the much smaller triplane.

DR BILL BROOKS: It would have been fairly obvious to him that the propeller would have to be scaled to the engine and also to the speed at which the engine is turning the propeller. So um we could build a propeller of this kind of plan form, er but it will come out looking much more like a toothpick than a paddle.

NARRATOR: With the last detail in place, the construction of the plane could finally begin. Back in 1899 from his base at Stanford Hall, Percy Pilcher was also approaching completion of the very same aircraft. But the move in to powered flight had not just taken him in to whole new areas of science it had also taken him in to debt. Pilcher needed money. So to raise funds he decided to fly his new triplane in front of some potential backers.

PHILIP JARRETT: The obvious thing was to gather any influential people or wealthy people who might be interested in the possibilities of powered flight and prepared to make some investment, not necessarily enormous but just something.

NARRATOR: The date of September 30th was set for the triplanes display. It would be her maiden flight. But then, just days before the display a set back. The new engine Pilcher had painstakingly built from scratch, broke down. It meant he would not be able to demonstrate the triplane after all.

PHILIP JARRETT: It was a disaster but not a major disaster. They could still show Pilcher flying a glider they could still show a new machine. It was a disappointment I’m sure.

NARRATOR: Pilcher was determined not to let down his guests. So he put on a display of his trusted glider, The Hawk.

PHILIP JARRETT: He tried a couple of launches and during that process, either from the damp on the ground or from perhaps some rain in the air, the glider had apparently become damp and therefore it would have made quite a difference to the weight of the thing. It went up nicely and I think it was the third attempt, it was going up quite well, reached somewhere between thirty and fifty feet. Then there was a very loud crack. People who were watching from the front saw the glider’s wing fold up and the glider plummet to the ground with a very heavy thud.

NARRATOR: Pilcher, unconscious, was rushed to the hall for treatment, where two days later he died. So it was that four years later all the glory would go to two Americans. On December 17th 1903 at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright triumphed with the world’s first ever sustained powered flights. Their longest flight lasted fifty nine seconds. It would buy them their place in the history books. As for Percy Pilcher, he lay forgotten in a London cemetery. In the aftermath of his death his triplane was abandoned and left to rot away. Yet the tantalising question remains, had Pilcher not been tragically killed might he have been the first person to fly? Over one hundred years after his death, Pilcher’s bold powered triplane was finally ready.

DR BILL BROOKS: It is a fantastic looking machine, it is a real whacky racer. Really he deserved to try it out didn’t he?

NARRATOR: But there was final issue still niggling Bill Brooks.

DR BILL BROOKS: This one, yeah. Right, and again.

NARRATOR: As the test pilot, who would be putting his neck on the line, Brooks was worried about Pilcher’s system of controlling the triplane. To get an aircraft to fly without veering uncontrollably left, right or straight in to the ground, was one of the great breakthroughs on the road to powered flight.

Prof IAN POLL The problem with an aeroplane is that it moves around in three dimensions. It can also roll, it can pitch and it can yaw and the skill in, in designing control systems is to make sure that the forces are applied in combinations which give you the desired manoeuvre, very difficult.

NARRATOR: Pilcher had controlled his gliders through balancing the aircraft by shifting his body weight. But Bill Brooks was concerned that body shift alone might not be good enough for the heavier powered triplane.

DR BILL BROOKS: Basically, right. You support your weight like this, and that is Pilcher’s flying position. And to slow the aircraft down you pitch up, like that. The trouble is that if the aircraft pitches up to that sort of angle, and you try and get, try and get the nose down again it becomes almost impossible.

NARRATOR: If you can't get the nose down you lose control, and crash. But there was a simple refinement that Pilcher would have been aware of, developed by Chanute for his triplane, a swinging seat to take the pilot’s weight.

DR BILL BROOKS: It seems crazy to me given that er they had decided to control an aircraft by weight shift, not to hang from something and give themselves a decent er lever arm by which to move the weight around in the airframe.

NARRATOR: The team decided to install a Chanute inspired swing seat on the triplane. But to be absolutely safe Bill Brooks went one step further.

DR BILL BROOKS: I’ve decided to add a system um which was developed after Pilcher really, er called wing warping. And the Wrights were the first people to really exploit wing warping. When I move say er to the left I pull on this string, because it’s connected to my strap here, that pulls that wing down to achieve er roll control.

NARRATOR: August 2003, the plane was at last ready to fly. The time had come to find out if Percy Pilcher could have been the first person to achieve powered flight.

DR BILL BROOKS: Right, ok that’s fine, that’s nose in to wind, alright.

NARRATOR: The target to beat, fifty nine seconds. The best time clocked up by the Wright Brothers in their inaugural flight.

DR BILL BROOKS: Choke off. Alright.

NARRATOR: The triplane flies, it was only seven seconds but that was just five seconds behind what the Wrights achieved on their very first attempt. It was time for another go.

DR BILL BROOKS: Oh bugger. Er, yeah, that’s a shame. How much damage? Ok, ok. Never mind. Quite quick to repair.

NARRATOR: A week later, it was the last chance for Pilcher’s triplane.

DR BILL BROOKS: We’ve repaired the spar and er a couple of ribs, recovered the bottom wing panel and er it’s pretty much as good as new now.

NARRATOR: The test flight told Brook some valuable lessons about the handling of the aircraft under power. Just as Percy Pilcher could have done. The team made a number of small adjustments to improve the triplane’s stability. One was critical.

DR BILL BROOKS: Because the prop goes round that way you have a torque reaction on the whole airframe which makes it roll right. So we’ve put a kilo of lead out on the tip to counterbalance the torque reaction. Um so that should sort that out. Switches on.

NARRATOR: Although Bill Brooks still had the Wright Brothers control system installed for safety, he was confident the plane would fly on a calm day without using it.

DR BILL BROOKS: Horizon one tower how do you read?

NARRATOR: Then it was time to open the throttle.

DR BILL BROOKS: Alright. Yeah it flies, eey haaa.

Prof IAN POLL: One minute and twenty five seconds. The Wright Brothers managed fifty nine seconds on their, their best flight of er December 17th so that’s pretty good.

DR BILL BROOKS: I’ve Pilched.

Prof IAN POLL: I thought that Percy Pilcher deserves a little more er credit than perhaps he’s been given up until now.

DR BILL BROOKS: He wasn’t that far off doing it was he, when you see that? And I was just limited by um crashing in the garden of that house over there really.

NARRATOR: No one can be sure that Pilcher would have made the small refinements made by the Horizon team. But there’s now no doubt that his triplane could have flown. It means had fate been otherwise Percy Pilcher could have been one of the greatest names in the history of aviation.


 
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