Friday 7 June 2024

Magnificent Men and Disastrous Machines. By Judith Allnatt

This is the story of Percy Pilcher, a man who could have beaten the Wright brothers to their record of first  flight in a powered aircraft if only he had made one crucial decision differently.

Born in 1867, Lieutenant Percy Pilcher was a British inventor and a pioneering aviator. He developed and flew several hang gliders, romantically named The Bat, The Beetle, The Gull and The Hawk. Unfortunately, the ideas evoked by these names, of speed, fast directional control, soaring and hovering were incredibly difficult to achieve with the materials and technology available at the time. Percy, a bachelor, was supported by his sister Ella who stitched the cotton and silk wing canopies of his ‘aerial machines’ and assisted at test flights, each one of which must have been a terrifying trial to watch.

Model at Stanford Hall showing the fragility of the construction.

To achieve flight in Pilcher’s hang glider the craft was pulled along by horses with a rope and geared pulley attached to the glider, until it lifted off the ground as a kite would. The pilot's arms rested on leather supports and he held on to two struts to maintain his position. Once airborne the craft was hard to manoeuvre and was prey to the vicissitudes of the wind, which might gust or change direction any time. A flight was typically between 20 or 50 feet above ground -  high enough to be extremely dangerous. As materials were basically cloth and bamboo, there was nothing in the structure to protect the pilot from impact. Nonetheless, Pilcher took the risks and broke the world distance record in 1897, flying 820 feet in The Hawk in the grounds of Stanford Hall, Leicestershire.

Pilcher was determined to invent a tri-plane capable of powered flight and, with the help of motor engineer Walter Wilson, developed an internal combustion engine to power it. On 30th September 1899 his plan was to demonstrate its flight to potential sponsors in the grounds of Stanford Hall but sadly the engine’s crankshaft had broken. Having dined with those who might support his work and allow it to move forward, and finding hundreds of people had turned up at the estate to see his flying attempt, the pressure on him to provide ‘a show’ must have been immense and he considered flying The Hawk instead. 

Despite windy conditions, he had managed several flights successfully in the morning that day, but in typical British style for September, the afternoon had been wet and stormy. In the crowd were other military men whom he wanted to impress and even local school children who had been given the day off to see the flight. When the weather improved, he decided to go ahead, not realising that the sodden fabric of the wings was putting awful strain on the bamboo structure. Two attempts were unsuccessful because the line attached to the machine broke, the third achieved lift off. The local paper, the Rugby Advertiser, reported the accident that ensued: 
"The Hawk moved forward and took flight but crashed when a “cross-bar” behind him snapped in a sharp gust of wind as Pilcher moved his body, in standing position, to one side or the other to navigate . . . the apparatus was seen to collapse in the air, turn over and fall to the ground – a distance of about 20 feet – with a thud, Mr Pilcher being under the wreckage. His devoted sister was one of the first to reach the scene . . ."

Pilcher had broken both his legs and was concussed. He died two days later having never regained consciousness. 

Had Pilcher lived to fit his engine to his tri-plane during the following weeks as he’d intended, experts expressed the view that he would certainly have been the first man to achieve engine-powered flight. Instead, no one was crowned with those laurels until the Wright brothers flew the first powered ‘heavier- than-air’ craft in 1903, achieving an impressive distance of four miles, and were credited with inventing the first successful aeroplane. 

Pilcher’s death, four years earlier, robbed him of that more elevated place in aeronautical history but we must salute his creativity, tenacity and courage. As the inquest reported: ‘. . . he had lost his life in perfecting what, if he could have proved a success, would be some good to the world’. 


To see actual models of Pilcher’s amazing aricraft, visit the Percy Pilcher museum at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire. To see video of the National Museum of Scotland's model being made visit