Pilots, Planes and Pioneers

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hile the Wright brothers may have been the first to make a sustained, controlled flight, they were just two among hundreds of brave men and women who helped to give the world its wings during the earliest days of aviation. Their Flyer was but one of many historically important aircraft. Below are brief descriptions and photos of some of the most important people and planes, and where available resources and links where you can find more information. In some cases, contributors have supplied expanded histories and biographies. Those are listed at the right and linked below.



Charles Manly was trained in engineering at Cornell University and became Samuel Langley's chief assistant in designing and building Aerodrome A or Great Aerodrome. In 1900, after waiting for New York automobile manufacturer Stephen Balzer to deliver an acceptable engine for the Aerodrome, he cancelled Balzer's contract and completed the engine himself, transforming it from a disappointing 8 horsepower rotary engine to a radial developing a whopping 52 horsepower to its 136-pound (62-kilogram) weight, making it the most efficient and advanced motor of its day. Manly served as pilot during both attempts to launch Aerodrome A in 1903 from a houseboat on the Potomac River, and he took a dousing each time. Although Langley's Aerodrome was a failure, Manly remained active in aeronautics. He was present in Hammondsport, New York in 1908 when Glenn Curtiss won the Scientific American Trophy for the first public flight over a kilometer in length and was a driving force in the Aero Club of America. He worked with Curtiss in 1914 to rebuild the Great Aerodrome and get it to fly. From 1915 to 1920, he worked for the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation, first as a consulting engineer and then as Assistant General Manager. He was also active in the automotive industry and served as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1919.

For an expanded history of the Aerodrome A and and Manly's adventures as its test pilot, see The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy.

Charles Matthews Manly.

The Great Aerodrome with its catapult cocked and ready to launch. Manly very nearly drowned during the second crash on 8 December 1903 when his cork life vest became entangled in the rigging. Note all the wires in the photos to the right. To see a 3D model of the Aerodrome, click HERE.

A side-view of the Great Aerodrome airfame, showing Manly in the cockpit just ahead of his radial engine. The cockpit nacelle in which he is seated is suspended from the airframe like the basket of a balloon.

Charles Manly in the cockpit of the reconstructed Great Aerodrome in 1914. Albert Zahm and Glenn Curtiss are seated at the lower right. Although the team heavily modified the Aerodrome to get it airborne, they used the Manly-Balzer engine (behind Manly) for the first few flights before switching to a more powerful Curtiss engine.
Sir Hiram Maxim, in 1878, lost a priority patent battle with Thomas Edison over the invention of the electric light. He next invented the machine gun, found the US Department of War unreceptive, and moved to England in 1881 where the Royal Army was more convivial. In England he devoted much of his life to research in aviation but made little substantial contribution. In his first public address on aeronautics, Wilbur Wright credited Maxim for making the first powered flight, although it was uncontrolled and could not be sustained. Maxim was convinced that propulsion was the central problem in aviation and built a lightweight steam engine that developed 180-horsepower. He mounted two of these on a huge multi-wing airplane and tested it on a track. The track was designed to hold the biplane down, letting it rise only a few inches. But during one test in 1894, the track failed to restrain the biplane and it took off with three people aboard, careened through the air for several hundred feet, and then crashed and was demolished. Thankfully none aboard were serious injured. This was, as Wilbur pointed out, perhaps the first time an airplane took off from level ground under its own power. However, owing the lack of effective controls and a skilled pilot to man them, it could hardly be considered a flight. Nonetheless, he had many other successful inventions, among them the mousetrap and the bronchial inhaler. In 1901 Queen Victoria knighted him for his contributions to science and technology. In 1904, he designed an amusement ride to help fund his research. Based on one of his aeronautical test rigs, he called it the Captive Flying Machine. Today it is better known as the Circle Swing and it's a staple at every carnival and amusement park. Maxim built a huge (but unsuccessful) biplane in 1910 and in 1911 he partnered with the pilots Claude Grahame-White and Louis Bleriot to develop an airplane capable of lifting a 500-pound (227 kilogram) payload that could be used as a bomber. Ill health prevented him from completing this project and he died in 1916.

Also see: Airmen & Chauffeurs

Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim was born in America in 1840, emigrated to England in 1881, and became a naturalized British citizen in 1899.

Maxim's 1893-94 "aircraft test rig" had detachable wing panels he could add or subtract. The center section looked remarkably like the wing of Sir George Cayley's "governable parachute."

Maxim's 1910 biplane was perhaps half the size of his test rig, but it was still an extremely large airplane for its time.

When refining his machine gun in the late 1880s, Maxim posted notices in the local papers thoughtfully advising his neighbors to stay inside while he tested the gun in his garden.

Sir Maxim (front row, middle) with friends posing in front of his mammoth test rig before its unintended flight.

The Captive Flying Machine (first Circle Swing), built n 1904, is still in operation at Pleasure Beach, Blackpool, England.
James Means of Massachusetts was an industrialist who had given up his business and devoted his considerable resources to the promotion of aviation. He studied bird flight designed model gliders in 1893 and 1894.  In 1895, he published the first of three Aeronautical Annuals,  bringing together the thinking of many diverse experimenters in the field. Means collected and edited the most significant papers he could find on aeronautics, including the works of Hargrave, Lilienthal, Chanute, Langley, and many others. He also reprinted some classic works by Cayley and Wenham. He discontinued the Annuals after the third volume in 1897, disenchanted with the public's lack of interest. But the three Annuals effectively summed up the state of aeronautics in the late nineteenth century and became the springboard for many designers of pioneer aircraft. Today, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – where Means was once a professor – gives out two annual awards in his honor, one for "Flight Vehicle Engineering" and the other for "Space Systems Engineering.

One of Means' monographs in which he outlined the obstacles to manned flight in the late nineteenth century and described possible methods for clearing them.

A model "soaring machine" design by James Means specifically for aeronautical experiments.
John J. Montgomery of California made some of the first recorded glider flights in America between 1883 and 1886 on the slopes of Otay Mesa, near the California/Mexico border. Assisted by his brothers and friends, he tested three gliders  with rudimentary aerodynamic roll and pitch controls. He gliding experiments led him to the conclusion that he needed a better understanding of aerodynamics and in 1885 he began a series of experiments with various instruments to investigate how a wing produces lift. He participated in the International Conference on Aerial Navigation at the World's Columbian Exhibition at Chicago in 1893, reading a paper on "Soaring Flight." In 1903-1904, he designed a propeller for Thomas Baldwin's airship, the California Arrow, and agreed to create a glider that could be dropped from the airship during exhibitions. Montgomery fell out with Baldwin,  but continued the glider project with balloonist Frank Hamilton and parachutist Daniel J. Maloney. Maloney made many safe gliding descents from Hamilton's balloon in 1904 and 1905.  On 18 July 1905, however, the glider crashed, killing Maloney. In 1910, Montgomery contracted with Victor Loughhead to develop a powered flying machine.  Before he could do so, he was killed on 31 October 1911 while piloting an "improved" glider, possibly a prototype of his planned powered aircraft.

Milton Caniff made this sketch of John Joseph Montgomery when he was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1964.

Daniel Maloney descending in Montgomery's glider after being dropped from an altitude of approximately 500 feet (152 meters).

Frank Hamilton's balloon hauls Daniel Maloney aloft in Montgomery's tandem-wing glider in 1905.

John Montgomery at the controls of the Evergreen in 1911. He apparently named his "improved" monoplane glider after the California town in which he lived. The Evergreen made over 50 successful flights before the crash in which Montgomery was killed.
Louis Mouillard, a Frenchman living in Cairo, Egypt, began his research in aeronautics in 1858, observing birds and building gliders. His machines were, at best, semi-successful. He recorded a few brief flights of under 200 feet (61 meters). Nonetheless, he learned much from his observation and his experiments. In 1881, he wrote an informative and passionate milestone in aeronautics, Empire of the Air, in which he proposed fixed-wing gliders with cambered wings, patterned after birds. He also proposed that aviators practice in gliders to gain the skill needed to pilot an aircraft in the air and become experienced airmen.  Up until that time, everyone in the infant field of aviation presumed you could navigate the sky with no more skill than a chauffer.   It split the field into two camps, each with a different approach to developing a practical aircraft. The chauffeurs focused on engineering, making a stable, powered flying machine. The airmen practiced with gliders to gain skill before attempting powered flight.

Louis Pierre-Marie Mouillard.

Mouillard in the cockpit of Glider No. 4 in Cairo, Egypt, 1878.
Alexandr F. Mozhaisky was a captain of the Imperial Navy of Russia. In 1853 and 1854, he may have accompanied unsuccessful Russian expeditions to the North Pole as a photographer. In the 1860s and 1870s he performed aeronautical research under the sponsorship of the Russian military. The military discontinued his funding in 1878, but Mozhaisky built a huge monoplane with a 74-foot (22.5 meter) wingspan on his own nickel. In 1881, the Russian government got interested once again and gave him 2500 rubles to purchase two steam engines. He installed one to turn a tractor propeller at the nose of the aircraft and the other to turn two mid-wing pusher propellers. Mozhaisky tested his aircraft in 1884  at Krasnoye Selo, near St. Petersburg, with I. N. Golubev in the pilot's seat.  It took off down a jump ramp and flew less than 100 feet (30 meters) before a wing dipped and it crashed. This was the second power-assisted take-off in history.

Alexandr Fyodorovich Mozhaisky.

A three-view patent drawing of Mozhaisky's steam-powered airplane.

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