Musings

Plane Facts!

In my first book, “The Skimming Stone”, Archie and Ally time travel back to the Second World War, meet Jazz, a Spitfire pilot and witness a dogfight and a victory roll.

This spiked my curiosity about aviation and how it all began so I turned to the Internet and this is what I found.

Do you know when the first airplane made a flight?

I may surprise you to know that it was back in 1903, on the 17th of December to be precise, Orville Wright made the first flight of 120 feet at about 10 feet from the ground and reaching a speed of only 6.8 miles per hour.  His brother Wilbur Wright made the next test flight and managed to fly 175 feet followed by Orville who then flew 200 feet. After these first attempts, the brothers got the hang of flying and on the fourth and last flight that day Wilbur flew to a height of 852 feet in 59 seconds.  The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken but the main part of the machine was not damaged and they estimated that it would be ready for the next flight in a day or two. Man had achieved one of his greatest wishes – powered flight.

After this do you know when the first commercial plane was designed and produced? Was it in the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s.  You will probably be as surprised as I was, to learn that it was in 1912.  It was called, “The Grand” and featured such things as an enclosed cabin separate from the pilots cabin, a lavatory, upholstered chairs and exterior catwalk atop the fuselage where passengers could take a turn about in the air. You will note that this feature has not been incorporated in later designs! Enough said. You may think that the nationality of the engineer behind this new airplane was British, German, American or French but you would be wrong.

His name was Igor Sikorsky and he was Russian. Born in Kiev on May 25th 1889, he developed an early interest in aviation due to the influence of his mother who was a doctor and his father, a psychology professor. The career he was to follow was settled when he met Count Zeppelin on a tour with his father in Germany. He graduated from the Petrograd Naval College and went to Paris to study engineering and returned to Kiev and entered the Mechanical Engineering College of the Polytechnic Institute in 1907.

After graduating, he decided to return to Paris which was then the aeronautical centre of Europe, to learn what he could of the embryo science having learnt all he could he returned to Kiev and tried to build a helicopter.  This failed so he then turned his attention to fixed wing aircraft.  He conceived the idea of an aircraft having more than one engine that was a most radical idea for the times and he gave the world its first multi-engine airplane the four-engined, “The Grand.”

He then went on to design and build an even bigger aircraft, called the, “Ilia Mouromets,” after a legendary 10th Century Russian hero The plane was of a revolutionary design and luxurious, incorporating an insulated passenger saloon comfortable wicker chairs, a bedroom, a lounge and the first airborne toilet. If it hadn’t been for the First World War it would have probably have started passenger flights in 1914.  As it was Sikorsky simply redesigned the aircraft to become the worlds first purpose built bomber.

Ilya Mouromets bombers carried 800 kg of bombs and positions for up to nine machine guns were added for self-defence, including the extreme tail and a crew of up to twelve. In fact, it was so well armed that some fighter squadrons of the Imperial German Air force feared to engage it in combat. It was, effectively, the original, “Flying Fortress.” In August 1914, the Ilya Mouromets was introduced into the Imperial Russian Air Force and on 10 December 1914, the Russians formed their first 10-bomber squadron slowly, increasing the number to 20 by the summer of 1916. In all, 73 aircraft were built between 1913 and 1918, flying over 400 sorties.

Following the Russian Revolution Sikorsky, sacrificed a considerable fortune leaving Russia and emigrated to France and then travelled to America in 1919. After a fruitless search for some position in aviation, Sikorsky resorted to teaching.  He lectured in New York until in 1923, a group of students and friends pooled their meagre resources and launched him on his first American aviation venture, The Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corp. The Company went from success to success and Igor went back to his original dream to design a helicopter and in 1943 the manufacture of the R-4 made it the world’s first prction helicopter.

Igor was an inventor and engineer but he was also a philosopher, with an intense interest in man, the world and the universe. So he was especially proud that his helicopters saved lives when the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service used them. He once said that pilots of helicopters have contributed to, “one of the most glorious pages in the history of human flight”

We tend to think that technology increased exponentially after the 1960’s, but as you can see it was going at quite a pace from as early as the 1900’s.  Igor Sikorsky was called, “a humble genius” and he died in October 1972 at the age of 83 years. He liked to say,  “the work of the individual still remains the spark which moves mankind ahead”. I wonder what he would think of the latest developments in space travel and that we have managed to land a space buggy on Mars in spite of doing this blind because of the distance and time delay involved. I like to think he would be excited by all the work going on to improve the speed of space travel, (see my blog Star gazing, Exoplanets and Space travel published 03/04/12 ) and that he would hope that this would lead to man achieving his other great ambition – to be able to fly to the stars.

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