High flyer

On the morning of Wednesday, 17 December, a small formation of Grob trainer aircraft belonging to the Universities of Glasgow & Strathclyde Air Squadron will take off from Glasgow Airport and head over the Erskine Bridge and down the course of the widening Clyde.

A century on from that momentous day at Kitty Hawk, when the Wrights’ Flyer took off from its rail to make four flights, the longest of which was 852ft, we’re all familiar with the images, the flimsy-looking assemblage of ribs, fabric and wire, driven by flailing wooden propellers, as it skimmed above the North Carolina sand flats. Much lesser known are photographs that remain of Pilcher’s bat-like gliders, which he flew at Cardross and later at Stanford Hall near Rugby. If fortune had proved kinder, Pilcher could feasibly have made that first powered flight.

It’s a possibility that was confirmed this summer, when a team of aviation historians and engineers recreated - and flew - the powered triplane upon which Pilcher was working at the time of his death in 1899, four years before the Wright brothers’ flight. Their efforts will feature in a BBC2 documentary to be shown on 11 December.

The Horizon documentary, Percy Pilcher’s Flying Machine, shows how a team led by aviation historian Philip Jarrett, microlight designer Bill Brooks and Professor Ian Poll, director of Cranfield College of Aeronautics, accessed what sketchy plans and drawings remained of Pilcher’s triplane, and built it, although with some essential modifications. They fitted it with a small, modern lightweight engine, increased the craft’s wing area by some 12 per cent, and - significantly - augmented Pilcher’s primitive control system, which relied on the pilot’s body weight, with a wing-warping system similar to that adopted by the Wright Brothers.

The film captures microlight pilot Brooks making an initial hop in the triplane, then an inauspicious second "flight" in which one wing is damaged, before it finally drones off to sustain flight, a few feet above the ground, for 1 minute 25 seconds, overtaking the Wright Brother’s record-breaking 75 seconds. "I’ve Pilched," yells Brooks triumphantly.

What the documentary doesn’t mention is that the earliest "Pilching" was at Cardross, where Pilcher flew his first three gliders. In fact, although he was born in Bath in 1867, his mother was Scots and, after a spell in the navy the young engineer spent much of the last decade of his all-too-short life in Glasgow, eventually becoming assistant to Professor John Biles, professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at Glasgow University, during which period he started experimenting with gliders.

Captivated by the ferment of aviation experimentation going on at the time, Pilcher visited the German gliding pioneer Otto Lilienthal, before designing several gliders of his own, the first three of which, the Bat, the Beetle and the Gull, he flew at Cardross. His most successful glider design, however, was the Hawk, which now hangs in the Museum of Flight at East Fortune, East Lothian.

At Cardross, Pilcher was chalking up maximum flight distances of around 200ft. Returning south in 1896 to work with another aviation visionary, the British-domiciled American Hiram Maxim, he managed up to 400ft at Stanford Hall with the Hawk, but this delicate craft, built of fabric stretched across Riga pine ribs, would prove his undoing.

On 30 September,1899, he was demonstrating the Hawk to a group of potential backers. He had planned to show off his new triplane but had experienced engine problems. Instead, he flew the Hawk, despite inclement weather, which may have made the glider’s fabric damp and heavy. At an altitude of between 30ft and 50ft, the tail snapped with an audible crack. To the horror of onlookers, the glider’s wings folded and it plummeted to the ground. Pilcher died two days later, gaining the dubious honour of being the second person to die in a fixed-wing aircraft crash - Lilienthal had been the first, three years earlier.

"He was totally fascinated by the idea of flying. He was aware of the risks and was prepared to take them," says Jarrett, who has extensively researched Pilcher’s life. He agrees, with some caution, that it is "conceivable" that the young engineer might have pipped the Wrights at the post. "But the biggest problem is whether he would have managed to devise a three-axes control system to replace the body-swinging he used to control his gliders, and that really is a quantum leap. It’s a major problem with his aircraft and we can’t really assume he would have solved that, although it’s nice to think he might have done," adds Jarrett, whose 1999 memorial lecture on Pilcher, Percy Pilcher and the Challenge of Flight is published by the National Museums of Scotland.

However, if the world has been neglectful of Pilcher, what of his sister, Ella, who not only helped him run up material for his gliders on her sewing machine in the flat they shared in Byres Road, but who, along with their cousin, Dorothy Rose, is known to have enjoyed brief flights in the Hawk? There is a case for one of them going down in history as the first woman to fly in a heavier-than-air machine, which they did, complete with bulky Victorian skirts and leg-of mutton sleeves.

As the world celebrates the achievement of the two bicycle mechanics at Kitty Hawk, there is no shortage of other aviation pioneers whose latter-day champions claim they beat the Wrights to it. The problem is that the case for these alleged contenders tends, as often as not, to have been made long after their exploits and is rarely backed up by anything more substantial than their supporters’ zeal, patriotic or otherwise partisan. Thus in New Zealand there is now a campaign for recognition of Richard "Bamboo Dick" Pearse, a farmer and aviation enthusiast who is supposed to have flown a bamboo craft in March 1903, months before the Wright brothers; while in Russia, Alexander Mozhaiskii’s alleged achievements in the 1880s seem to have been later promoted by a Stalinist propaganda exercise. In Scotland, Preston Watson is reputed to have flown at Errol in the summer of 1903.

Professor Dugald Cameron, artist, aviation historian and former director of Glasgow School of Art, feels that, certainly in the case of Watson and Pearse, "they should be given credit for what they actually did, rather than what their supporters’ clubs are saying, because they were great men to be trying these things.

"It’s interesting that neither Pearse nor Watson made any claims themselves. It’s always other people."

By way of marking the Wright centenary - and Pilcher’s contribution - Cameron will launch his new book, From Pilcher to the Planets, at Glasgow airport on 17 December, before taking part in the formation fly-past by the university air squadron, of which he is patron.

It’s hard to say whether or not Pilcher could have beaten the Wright brothers to it, he says. "Philip [Jarrett] is a good friend of mine and we debate this often. However, the flight of the recreated triplane at Cranfield was quite astonishing. I think what you can say is that Pilcher was clearly on the right lines, although he would have run into some fairly hefty control problems, because he hadn’t really thought about that. The big difference between Pilcher - and everyone else at that point - and the Wright brothers was that the Wrights understood it wasn’t sufficient just to devise a flying machine; you also had to devise a means of controlling it."

"Sacrifices are necessary," were the last words of Otto Lilienthal, Pilcher’s German mentor, who paid the ultimate price of reaching for the sky, and Jarrett’s view perhaps bears this out: "In a funny way, the deaths of Lilienthal and Pilcher were an inspiration to the Wright brothers, because it really got them involved in the business of controlling an aeroplane, and that is where they won through."

• Horizon: Percy Pilcher’s Flying Machine on BBC2 on 11 December, at 9pm. From Pilcher to the Planets, by Dugald Cameron, is published by the University of Glasgow on 17 December.