20 DECEMBER 1963, Page 8

Did the Wright Brothers Fly First ?


IONEERINO, like, sin, is geographical. In the United States of America and in Great Britain there is general acceptance of the claim that sixty years ago, on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk,. the Wright brothers made the first full-scale, powered aeroplane flight.

Yet in other parts of the world, other views prevail. I suppose that Clement Ader, that strange, inspired little Frenchman who was a pioneer of the telephone with Graham Bell, is the strongest contender for priority. It is un- pleasantly disconcerting to find the English- speaking world primly averting its gaze from Ader and leaving him out of some of its aero- nautical chronologies, for there is so little difference in the credibility of the evidence that, if it be accepted that the Wrights flew in 1903, it ought to be accepted that Ader flew in 1890.

In the calm of the evening on October 9, 1890, in the grounds of Madame Isaac Pereire's place at Gretz-Armainvilliers, nine witnesses watched Ader climb into an aeroplane which, in its broad outlines, was identical with any aeroplane you might see today. It was a monoplane without external bracing struts and it had a wheeled, steerable undercarriage. It was controllable about all three axes (by variable sweep, wing warping and a rudder) and the pilot sat in an enclosed cockpit. Its power plant was a miracle of in- genuity, the lightest steam engine ever made. This drove a four-bladed, variable-pitch, tractor air- screw.

After getting up steam, Ader accelerated his aircraft along a rolled grass strip. The witnesses unanimously affirmed that it heaved itself into the air, flew for 160 feet and landed without mishap. In May, 1954, Mr. Pereire, one of the witnesses, recorded what he and his companions had seen before a huissier (an official who is rather more than a notary and who is trained in taking evidence). The aircraft, according to the declaration, had flown above the height of the banks of shrubs near the runway.

In 1891 Ader, then fifty years old, claimed to have flown for a much greater distance. With a new twin-engined aeroplane he also flew in 1897 when his performance was observed by French Army officers. The evidetice is thaLAder took off from level surfaces, that his aircraft lifted itself and its equipment by its-own power and that it flew.

Now nobody has any doubt about the genius of the Wright brothers, about their absolute honesty or about the scientific methods they used. Nobody questions the vast influence their work exercised

upon the development of aviation. Captain Laurence Pritchard and Mr. Charles Gibbs-Smith

have made all this plain. But if we are thinking of being fair about first flights—internationally fair, that is—we must take a sharp look at the Wrights' 1903 performance.

They had fewer witnesses than Ader and one of them, A. W. Drinkwater, in an interview with a New York newspaper in the 1950s, said that

the Wrights did not, in fact, make a powered flight in 1903 but only a glide. The Wrights, how-

ever, had that famous photograph. I doubt if any photograph has borne a greater burden of proof. Yet Gabriel Voisin, the French aircraft- maker, who was planning his first aeroplanes at the time, argues that the photograph shows that the launching rail was inclined. From this, from the contours of the surrounding country and from the existence of a force 5 wind, he infers

that the aircraft made a glide and did not lift itself from the ground by its own unaided power, Voisin expands on this in his autobiography, the English version of which has just been pub.

lished. I translated it because the late Prince Viazemsky, the inventor, had urged me to try to publicise Voisin's views and because I felt that people in this country and in the US might like to hear the French side.

There is •the criticism that the . use by the Wrights of a trolley running on the launching

rail, but not carried in the aircraft, constituted a form of assistance at take-off. Although of small importance in itself this point reinforces the really sharp criticism that the Wrights' first engine was too heavy for its power to lift their biplane without help. The later derrick type launching catapult is thought by some to con- firm the inadequate power to weight ratio of the early engine and to support the contention that the 1903 experiments were powered glides.

Then there was 'that mysterious hiatus, never satisfactorily explained, in the information about the Wrights' progress. In the land of aggressive reporters and • unbridled avidity for news it is puzzling that so little was heard of the Wrights between 1903 and 1906, the year of Santos- Dumont's officially observed flight. The public demonstration of 1904 was a flop and in 1906 an authoritative American scientific magazine re- mained unconvinced. These points do not belittle the Wrights' work, but they do put it into inter- national perspective with the work of people like Ader, the Voisin brothers and Santos-Dumont.

We must be warned about the lubricity (in the exact sense) of definitions. By adding a qualify- ing word to the definition of 'full scale, powered aeroplane flight' both Ader's and the Wright's early performances can be discredited. Tack on the word 'sustained' or the word 'controlled' and interpretation can be infinitely various. Sustained for how long? Controlled to what degree?

Perhaps the first truly controlled flights were made. by Pegoud in his Bleriot just before the 1914-18 war.

If qualification is barred, the early flight ver- dict must go to both or neither. The alternative is' this: either Ader flew in the 1890s and the Wrights in 1903 or neither flew at these times.

A young engineer, M. R. Marchal, who works in the atomic power division of SNECMA (the

French aero-engine company) has recently made a new study of Ader's work. He examined his patents and the reports of the court action on

warping wing patents brought by the Wright brothers against Ader and won by Ader. In sum he gives strong support to Ader's claims.

M. Charles Dollfus is sometimes quoted as being a French historian who rejects those claims.

But outside the category of tendentiously qualified definitions, I have found no such rejection in his writings. Mr. Charles Gibbs- Smith, though he himself seems lukewarm about Ader, makes the Dollfus position clear in his splendid historical survey, The Aeroplane.

When I entered aviation I disbelie'ved Ader's claims. It was not until I became the London

correspondent of the now defunct French paper, l'Airophile that 1 heard the other side in full. Today I believe that Ader flew in 1890 and I also believe that the Wrights flew in 1903. Ader's aircraft probably lacked controllability; the Wrights' aircraft probably lacked power for weight. But I think that both flew.