Percy Pilcher

Percy Sinclair Pilcher (1866-1899) was a English inventor and pioneer aviator who, in one of the big "what if" events of history, could well have become the first person to achieve controlled powered heavier-than-air flight, well before the Wright brothers, had he not been tragically killed in a glider accident.

Pilcher was born in Bath and served briefly in the Royal Navy. After that he had several jobs as a university lecturer. In the 1890s he began to experiment with gliders.

After several early attempts, In 1899, Pilcher built a glider called The Hawk, based on the work of his mentor Otto Lilienthal, which he flew from the grounds of the stately manor Stanford Hall in Leicestershire, England.

The glider worked well and in 1897 The Hawk broke the world record for flight when it covered 250 metres (820 feet). Following this, Pilcher set his sights upon powered flight: he developed a triplane, which was to be powered by a 4 h.p engine. However construction of the triplane put him heavily into debt, and Pilcher needed sponsorship to complete his work.

On the 30th of September 1899, having completed his triplane, he had intended to demonstrate it to a group of onlookers and potential sponsors in a field near Stanford Hall. However the engine broke down and, so as not to disappoint his guests, he decided to fly the Hawk instead. Whilst flying, the tail snapped and Pilcher plunged 10 metres (30 feet) to the ground: he died two days later from his injuries with his triplane never having been flown.

A stone monument to him stands in the field near Stanford Hall, at the point where he crashed, and a full sized replica of his "The Hawk" glider is also displayed at Stanford Hall. His grave is in London.

Renewal of interest

Pilcher's plans were lost for many years and his name was also long forgotten except by a few enthusiasts. With the upcoming centenary of flight, a new effort was made to find the lost work, and some correspondence was found in a private American collection, from this it was possible to discern the general direction of his plans and the basis of his design. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Pilcher had worked out how to produce lift using winglike structures, but at this time a full mathematical description was years away, so many elements were still missing. In particular, Pilcher was stuck trying to design a wing that could lift the weight of an engine, the aircraft itself and the occupant - each increase in wing area increased the weight so much that yet more lift was required, requiring a larger wing - a seemingly vicious circle. Pilcher's breakthrough, thanks to correspondence with another pioneer, Octave Chanute, was to stack smaller, lighter wings one atop the other, in an arrangement we know today as the biplane or triplane. This allowed the wings to generate much more lift without a corresponding increase in weight.

In 2003 a research effort carried out at the School of Aeronautics at Cranfield University commissioned by the BBC2 television series "Horizon", has shown that Pilcher's design was more or less workable, and had he been able to develop his engine, it is likely he would have succeeded in being the first to fly a heavier-than-air powered aircraft under control. A replica of Pilcher's aircraft was built, and after some teething problems, achieved a sustained controlled flight of 1 minute and 26 seconds, significantly longer than the Wright Brothers' first flight. In addition, this was achieved under dead calm conditions, whereas the Wrights needed a steady 25 knot+ wind to achieve enough airspeed on their early attempts.

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