November is National Aviation Month, a time to honor the long and illustrious history of mankind’s longtime dream of soaring through the air. Long before anyone was able to master the physics and mechanics needed for heavier-than-air flight, our ancestors dreamt up fantastical humanlike creatures capable of flight, like the recurring winged genie motif in Sumerian iconography. From the ancient myth of Icarus and Daedalus, to Leonardo Da Vinci’s intriguing concept drawings, our species’ fascination with flight is much older than our ability to achieve that dream.
Everyone knows about the Wright Brothers, who are generally credited as the inventors of the first fully functional modern airplane. But what about George Cayley? George Cayley, 6th Baronet, was a prolific British scientist and engineer who pioneered early scientific inquiry into the mechanics of flight. Unlike the Wright Brothers, he never succeeded in achieving powered flight, his empirical approach to aeronautic engineering paved the way for later innovation in the field of aviation.
The Father of Aviation
George Cayley was born in 1773 in Scarborough, England, in the region of Yorkshire. Beginning in his childhood, he was fascinated by flying machines and the concept of manned flight. Throughout his career, he designed a variety of aircraft concepts, including helicopters, airships, and gliders.
What set Cayley apart from previous aviation pioneers was his scientific approach. He conducted numerous experiments to explore the physics and mechanics involved in flight. He was the first to measure the drag of objects at different speeds and angles, using a whirling-arm apparatus of his own design. This five foot long device attained top speeds of 10 to 20 feet per second, allowing Cayley to obtain valuable data from his testing. Cayley used models, then progressed to full scale demonstrations. Like all scientists, he recorded his findings meticulously.
In 1804, Cayley designed a model monoplane glider, the appearance of which was strikingly modern. It featured an adjustable cruciform tail, a kite-shaped wing at a high angle of incidence, and a moveable weight that could adjust its center of gravity. This was the world’s first ever gliding device to achieve significant flights.
The next year, he made another major discovery through experimentation: that dihedral wings, set lower at the center than at the outer ends, improved an aircraft’s lateral stability. Using his models, he continued his research, and in 1807, he found that a curved lifting surface could generate more lift than a flat surface.
In 1810, he published his now-classic treatise “On Aerial Navigation.” This three-part document stated that lift, propulsion, and control were the three crucial elements that were needed for a successful flight. He was the first person to reach this conclusion, and his discovery was vital for later aviation.
The First Manned Gliders
Much later, in 1849, Cayley reached another important milestone in the history of aviation. He built a full-sized gliding machine, similar to a previous design he had created back in 1799. This glider carried a 10-year-old boy as its pilot, successfully completing a short flight. This was the first manned flight ever achieved.
In 1853, he built an even larger glider, piloted by his coachman. It flew across Brompton Dale, across from Wyndale Hall, a private house built by the Cayley family in Yorkshire. The name of the coachman, as well as the ten year old boy from 1849, have unfortunately been forgotten. However, these two unnamed men were the world’s first aircraft pilots.
Laying the Foundation for Powered Flight
Although George Cayley never achieved powered flight, as the Wright Brothers did decades later, his scientific approach was able to identify the key engineering and physics principles that underlie the possibility of human flight. Cayley may not be as well-remembered as the Wright Brothers by the general public, but without his scientific innovations, the first powered flight would not have been possible.