LILIENTHAL AND PILCHER
There was never a more enthusiastic and consistent student of the problems of flight than Otto Lilienthal, who was born in 1848 at Anklam, Pomerania, and even from his early school-days dreamed and planned the conquest of the air. His practical experiments began when, at the age of thirteen, he and his brother Gustav made wings consisting of wooden framework covered with linen, which Otto attached to his arms, and then ran downhill flapping them. In consequence of possible derision on the part of other boys, Otto confined these experiments for the most part to moonlit nights, and gained from them some idea of the resistance offered by flat surfaces to the air. It was in 1867 that the two brothers began really practical work, experimenting with wings which, from their design, indicate some knowledge of Besnier and the history of his gliding experiments; these wings the brothers fastened to their backs, moving them with their legs after the fashion of one attempting to swim. Before they had achieved any real success in gliding the Franco German war came as an interruption; both brothers served in this campaign, resuming their experiments in 1871 at the conclusion of hostilities.
The experiments made by the brothers previous to the war had convinced Otto that previous experimenters in gliding flight had failed through reliance on empirical conclusions or else through incomplete observation on their own part, mostly of bird flight. From 1871, onward Otto Lilenthal (Gustav's interest in the problem was not maintained as was his brother's) made what is probably the most detailed and accurate series of observations that has ever been made with regard to the properties of curved wing surfaces. So far as could be done, Lilienthal tabulated the amount of air resistance offered to a bird's wing, ascertaining that the curve is necessary to flight, as offering far more resistance than a flat surface. Cayley, and others, had already stated this, but to Lilienthal belongs the honour of being first to put the statement to effective proof he made over 2,000 gliding flights between 1891 and the regrettable end of his experiments; his practical conclusions are still regarded as part of the accepted theory of students of flight. In 1889 he published a work on the subject of gliding flight which stands as data for investigators, and, on the conclusions embodied in this work, he began to build his gliders and practice what he had preached, turning from experiment with models to wings that he could use.
It was in the summer of 1891 that he built his first glider of rods of peeled willow, over which was stretched strong cotton fabric; with this, which had a supporting surface of about 100 square feet, Otto Lilienthal launched himself in the air from a spring board, making glides which, at first of only a few feet, gradually lengthened. As his experience of the supporting qualities of the air progressed he gradually altered his designs until, when Pilcher visited him in the spring of 1895, he experimented with a glider, roughly made of peeled willow rods and cotton fabric, having an area of 150 square feet and weighing half a hundredweight. By this time Lilienthal had moved from his springboard to a conical artificial hill which he had had thrown up on level ground at Grosse Lichterfelde, near Berlin. This hill was made with earth taken from the excavations incurred in constructing a canal, and had a cave inside in which Lilienthal stored his machines. Pilcher, in his paper on 'Gliding,' gives an excellent short summary of Lilienthal's experiments, from which the following extracts are taken:--
'At first Lilienthal used to experiment by jumping off a springboard with a good run. Then he took to practicing on some hills close to Berlin. In the summer of 1892 he built a flat-roofed hut on the summit of a hill, from the top of which he used to jump, trying, of course, to soar as far as possible before landing.... One of the great dangers with a soaring machine is losing forward speed, inclining the machine too much down in front, and coming down headfirst. Lilienthal was the first to introduce the system of handling a machine in the air merely by moving his weight about in the machine; he always rested only on his elbows or on his elbows and shoulders....
'In 1892 a canal was being cut, close to where Lilienthal lived, in the suburbs of Berlin, and with the surplus earth Lilienthal had a special hill thrown up to fly from. The country round is as flat as the sea, and there is not a house or tree near it to make the wind unsteady, so this was an ideal practicing ground; for practicing on natural hills is generally rendered very difficult by shifty and gusty winds.... This hill is 50 feet high, and conical. Inside the hill, there is a cave for the machines to be kept in.... When Lilienthal made a good flight, he used to land 300 feet from the centre of the hill, having come down at an angle of 1 in 6; but his best flights have been at an angle of about 1 in 10.
'If it is calm, one must run a few steps down the hill, holding the machine as far back on oneself as possible, when the air will gradually support one, and one slides off the hill into the air. If there is any wind, one should face it at starting; to try to start with a side wind is most unpleasant. It is possible after a great deal of practice to turn in the air, and fairly quickly. Throwing one’s weight to one side, and thus lowering the machine on that side towards which one wants to turn accomplish this. Birds do the same thing crows and gulls show it very clearly. Last year Lilienthal chiefly experimented with double-surfaced machines. These were very much like the old machines with awnings spread above them.
'The object of making these double-surfaced machines was to get more surface without increasing the length and width of the machine. This, of course, it does, but I personally object to any machine in which the wing surface is high above the weight. I consider that it makes the machine very difficult to handle in bad weather, as a puff of wind striking the surface, high above one, has a great tendency to heel the machine over.
'Herr Lilienthal kindly allowed me to sail down his hill in one of these double-surfaced machines last June. With the great facility afforded by his conical hill, the machine was handy enough; but I am afraid I should not be able to manage one at all in the squally districts I have had to practice in over here.
'Herr Lilienthal came to grief through deserting his old method of balancing. In order to control his tipping movements more rapidly he attached a line from his horizontal rudder to his head, so that when he moved his head forward it would lift the rudder and tip the machine up in front, and vice versa. He was practicing this on some natural hills outside Berlin, and he apparently got muddled with the two motions, and, in trying to regain speed after he had, through a lull in the wind, come to rest in the air, let the machine get too far down in front, came down head first and was killed.'
Then in another passage Pilcher enunciates what is the true value of such experiments as Lilienthal and, subsequently, he himself made: 'The object of experimenting with soaring machines,' he says, 'is to enable one to have practice in starting and alighting and controlling a machine in the air. They cannot possibly float horizontally in the air for any length of time, but to keep going must necessarily lose in elevation. They are excellent schooling machines, and that is all they are meant to be, until power, in the shape of an engine working a screw propeller, or an engine working wings to drive the machine forward, is added; then a person who is used to soaring down a hill with a simple soaring machine will be able to fly with comparative safety. One can best compare them to bicycles having no cranks, but on which one could learn to balance by coming down an incline.'
It was in 1895 that Lilienthal passed from experiment with the monoplane type of glider to the construction of a biplane glider which, according to his own account, gave better results than his previous machines. 'Six or seven meters velocity of wind,' he says, 'sufficed to enable the sailing surface of 18 square meters to carry me almost horizontally against the wind from the top of my hill without any starting jump. If the wind is stronger, I allow myself to be simply lifted from the point of the hill and to sail slowly towards the wind. The direction of the flight has, with strong wind, a strong upwards tendency. I often reach positions in the air which are much higher than my starting point. At the climax of such a line of flight I sometimes come to a standstill for some time, so that I am enabled while floating to speak with the gentlemen who wish to photograph me, regarding the best position for the
Lilienthal's work did not end with simple gliding, though he did not live to achieve machine-driven flight. Having, as he considered, gained sufficient experience with gliders, he constructed a power-driven machine which weighed altogether about 90 lbs., and this was thoroughly tested. The extremities of its wings were made to flap, and the driving power was obtained from a cylinder of compressed carbonic acid gas, released through a hand-operated valve which, Lilienthal anticipated, would keep the machine in the air for four minutes. There were certain minor accidents to the mechanism, which delayed the trial flights, and on the day that Lilienthal had determined to make his trial he made a long gliding flight with a view to testing a new form of rudder that as Pilcher relates was worked by movements of his head. His death came about through the causes that Pilcher states; he fell from a height of 50 feet, breaking his spine, and the next day he died.
It may be said that Lilienthal accomplished as much as any one of the great pioneers of flying. As brilliant in his conceptions as da Vinci had been in his, and as conscientious a worker as Borelli, he laid the foundations on which Pilcher, Chanute, and Professor Montgomery were able to build to such good purpose. His book on bird flight, published in 1889, with the authorship credited both to Otto and his brother Gustav, is regarded as epoch-making; his gliding experiments are no less entitled to this description.
In England Lilienthal's work was carried on by Percy Sinclair Pilcher, who, born in 1866, completed six years' service in the British Navy by the time that he was nineteen, and then went through a course of engineering, subsequently joining Maxim in his experimental work. It was not until 1895 that he began to build the first of the series of gliders with which he earned his plane among the pioneers of flight. Probably the best account of Pilcher's work is that given in the Aeronautical Classics issued by the Royal Aeronautical Society, from which the following account of Pilcher's work is mainly abstracted.
The 'Bat,' as Pilcher named his first glider, was a monoplane which he completed before he paid his visit to Lilienthal in 1895. Concerning this Pilcher stated that he purposely finished his own machine before going to see Lilienthal, so as to get the greatest advantage from any original ideas he might have; he was not able to make any trials with this machine, however, until after witnessing Lilienthal's experiments and making several glides in the biplane glider which Lilienthal constructed.
The wings of the 'Bat' formed a pronounced dihedral angle; the tips being raised 4 feet above the body. The spars forming the entering edges of the wings crossed each other in the centre and were lashed to opposite sides of the triangle that served as a mast for the stay-wires that guyed the wings. The four ribs of each wing, enclosed in pockets in the fabric, radiated fanwise from the centre, and were each stayed by three steel piano-wires to the top of the triangular mast, and similarly to its base. These ribs were bolted down to the triangle at their roots, and could be easily folded back on to the body when the glider was not in use. A small fixed vertical surface was carried in the rear. The framework and ribs were made entirely of Riga pine; the surface fabric was nainsook. The area of the machine was 150 square feet; its weight 45 lbs.; so that in flight, with Pilcher's weight of 145 lbs. added, it carried one and a half pounds to the square foot.
Pilcher's first glides, which he carried out on a grass hill on the banks of the Clyde near Cardross, gave little result, owing to the exaggerated dihedral angle of the wings, and the absence of a horizontal tail. The 'Bat 'was consequently reconstructed with a horizontal tail plane added to the vertical one, and with the wings lowered so that the tips were only six inches above the level of the body. The machine now gave far better results; on the first glide into a head wind Pilcher rose to a height of twelve feet and remained in the air for a third of a minute; in the second attempt a rope was used to tow the glider, which rose to twenty feet and did not come to earth again until nearly a minute had passed. With experience, Pilcher was able to lengthen his glide and improve his balance, but the dropped wing tips made landing difficult, and there were many breakages.
In consequence of this Pilcher built a second glider which he named the 'Beetle,' because, as he said, it looked like one. In this, the square-cut wings formed almost a continuous plane, rigidly fixed to the central body, which consisted of a shaped girder. These wings were built up of five transverse bamboo spars, with two shaped ribs running from fore to aft of each wing, and were stayed overhead to a couple of masts. The tail, consisting of two discs placed crosswise (the horizontal one alone being movable), was carried high up in the rear. With the exception of the wing-spars, the whole framework was built of white pine. The wings in this machine were actually on a higher level than the operator's head; the centre of gravity was, consequently, very low, a fact which, according to Pilcher's own account, made the glider very difficult to handle. Moreover, the weight of the 'Beetle,' 80 lbs., was considerable; the body had been very solidly built to enable it to carry the engine which Pilcher was then contemplating; so that the glider carried some 225 lbs. with its area of 170 square feet too great a mass for a single man to handle with comfort.
It was in the spring of 1896 that Pilcher built his third glider, the 'Gull,' with 300 square feet of area and a weight of 55 lbs. The size of this machine rendered it unsuitable for experiment in any but very calm weather, and it incurred such damage when experiments were made in a breeze that Pilcher found it necessary to build a fourth, which he named the 'Hawk.' This machine was very soundly built, being constructed of bamboo, with the exception of the two main transverse beams. The wings were attached to two vertical masts, 7 feet high, and 8 feet apart, joined at their summits and their centers by two wooden beams. Each wing had nine bamboo ribs, radiating from its mast, which was situated at a distance of 2 feet 6 inches from the forward edge of the wing. Each rib was rigidly stayed at the top of the mast by three tie-wires, and by a similar number to the bottom of the mast, by which means the curve of each wing was maintained uniformly. The tail was formed of a triangular horizontal surface to which was affixed a triangular vertical surface, and was carried from the body on a high bamboo mast, which was also stayed from the masts by means of steel wires, but only on its upper surface, and it was the snapping of one of these guy wires which caused the collapse of the tail support and brought about the fatal end of Pilcher's experiments. In flight, Pilcher's head, shoulders, and the greater part of his chest projected above the wings. He took up his position by passing his head and shoulders through the top aperture formed between the two wings, and resting his forearms on the longitudinal body members. A very simple form of undercarriage, which took the weight off the glider on the ground, was fitted, consisting of two bamboo rods with wheels suspended on steel springs.
Balance and steering were effected, apart from the high degree of inherent stability afforded by the tail, as in the case of Lilienthal's glider, by altering the position of the body. With this machine Pilcher made some twelve glides at Eynsford in Kent in the summer of 1896, and as he progressed he increased the length of his glides, and also handled the machine more easily, both in the air and in landing. He was occupied with plans for fitting an engine and propeller to the 'Hawk,' but, in these early days of the internal combustion engine, was unable to get one light enough for his purpose. There were rumors of an engine weighing 15 lbs. which gave 1 horsepower, and was reported to be in existence in America, but it could not be traced.
In the spring of 1897 Pilcher took up his gliding experiments again, obtaining what was probably the best of his glides on June 19th, when he alighted after a perfectly balanced glide of over 250 yards in length, having crossed a valley at a considerable height. From his various experiments he concluded that once the machine was launched in the air an engine of, at most, 3 horse-power would suffice for the maintenance of horizontal flight, but he had to allow for the additional weight of the engine and propeller, and taking into account the comparative inefficiency of the propeller, he planned for an engine of 4 horse-power. Engine and propeller together were estimated at under 44 lbs. weight, the engine was to be fitted in front of the operator, and by means of an overhead shaft was to operate the propeller situated in rear of the wings. 1898 went by while this engine was under construction. Then in 1899 Pilcher became interested in Lawrence Hargrave's soaring kites, with which he carried out experiments during the summer of 1899. It is believed that he intended to incorporate a number of these kites in a new machine, a triplane, of which the fragments remaining are hardly sufficient to reconstitute the complete glider. This new machine was never given a trial. For on September 30th, 1899, at Stamford Hall, Market Harborough, Pilcher agreed to give a demonstration of gliding flight, but owing to the unfavorable weather he decided to postpone the trial of the new machine and to experiment with the 'Hawk,' which was intended to rise from a level field, towed by a line passing over a tackle drawn by two horses. At the first trial, the machine rose easily, but the tow-line snapped when it was well clear of the ground, and the glider descended, weighed down through being sodden with rain. Pilcher resolved on a second trial, in which the glider again rose easily to about thirty feet, when one of the guy wires of the tail broke, and the tail collapsed; the machine fell to the ground, turning over, and Pilcher was unconscious when he was freed from the wreckage.
Hopes were entertained of his recovery, but he died on Monday, October 2nd, 1899, aged only thirty-four. His work in the cause of flying lasted only four years, but in that time his actual accomplishments were sufficient to place his name beside that of Lilienthal, with whom he ranks as one of the greatest exponents of gliding flight.