Percy Sinclair Pilcher

Percy Sinclair Pilcher

British inventor and aviation pioneer
Date of Birth: 16.01.1866
Country: Great Britain

  1. Percy Sinclair Pilcher: Biography
  2. Pilcher's Plans for Powered Flight
  3. Revisiting Pilcher's Work

Percy Sinclair Pilcher: Biography

Percy Sinclair Pilcher was a British inventor and aviation pioneer, widely recognized as one of the country's most prominent experimenters in the field of unpowered heavier-than-air flight in the late 19th century. He had plans to achieve powered flight using a hand glider, but tragically died in a glider crash before he could realize his dream. Pilcher was born in Bath in 1866, with his mother being Scottish. He served in the Royal Navy for seven years starting in 1880. He later became an apprentice at the shipbuilding firm Randolph, Elder & Company in Glasgow. In 1891, Pilcher began working as an assistant at the University of Glasgow, where he developed an interest in aviation. He built a hand glider called the Bat, on which he made his first flight in 1895; the Bat had a double-A shaped framework. Later that same year, Pilcher met Otto Lilienthal, the leading glider specialist in Germany. Through their exchange of knowledge, Pilcher built two more gliders - the Beetle and the Gull. Based on Lilienthal's work, Pilcher constructed another glider in 1897 called the Hawk, on which he set a world record by flying 250 meters in Stanford Hall near Lutterworth, Leicestershire, England.

Pilcher's Plans for Powered Flight

Pilcher had plans to achieve powered flight. He designed a triplane that was intended to be equipped with a 4 horsepower (3 kW) engine. However, the construction of the triplane left Pilcher in debt, and he hoped for sponsor support to complete the project. On September 30, 1899, Pilcher intended to conduct a demonstration flight on the triplane for a group of spectators and potential sponsors in a field near Stanford Hall. However, the engine broke the day before, and to avoid disappointing the guests, he decided to fly the Hawk instead. The weather was unfavorable, but at 4:00 PM Pilcher decided it was suitable for flight. During the flight, a gust of wind caused Pilcher's glider to crash from a height of 10 meters to the ground. He died two days later from his injuries, and his triplane never made any public flights. Percy Pilcher was buried at Brompton Cemetery in London. A memorial to Percy Pilcher was erected at the crash site in Stanford Hall, and a full-scale replica of the Hawk glider is located at Stanford Hall. Pilcher's ideas were forgotten for many years, and his name was known only to a small number of enthusiasts. It wasn't until the centenary of the Wright Brothers' flight that interest in Pilcher's forgotten work arose. Correspondence from Pilcher was discovered in a private collection in the United States, allowing for an understanding of his plans and descriptions of his aircraft designs. Building on Lilienthal's work, Pilcher understood how to achieve lift using winged aircraft, despite the lack of a mathematical model of flight and the primitive state of aerodynamics at the time. In particular, Pilcher attempted to create a wing that could support the weight of the engine, the aircraft's fuselage, and the pilot - the larger the wing area, the greater the lift it could produce, but the heavier it would be itself. This created a vicious cycle, and Pilcher sought to find a way out. One major achievement of Pilcher was the use of smaller, lightweight wings stacked one above the other, which we now know as biplanes and triplanes. This design allowed for increased lift without significantly increasing the weight of the aircraft.

Revisiting Pilcher's Work

In 2003, an investigation was conducted at the School of Aerospace at Cranfield University, which led to the production of a television film by BBC2 as part of the "Horizon" series. The study concluded that Pilcher's aircraft design was, to some extent, achievable, and if he had managed to install an engine, it is possible that he could have made the first controlled flight on an airplane before the Wright Brothers. A precise replica of Pilcher's aircraft was built at Cranfield, with the addition of the ability to control the aircraft using wing warping. Pilcher's original design did not include control systems like ailerons or elevators. After a short test flight, the aircraft was able to fly for 1 minute and 25 seconds, which was longer than the best flight of the Wright Brothers in the initial series of flights in Kitty Hawk. This flight was achieved in still air (to ensure experimental safety), while the Wright Brothers used strong headwinds in their early flights.