Late great engineers: Percy Pilcher - unsung hero of early aviation

Convinced powered flight was possible, British engineer Percy Pilcher perished trying to prove his point. If it wasn’t for a gliding accident he might have become the greatest name in aviation. Written by Nick Smith

But for a tragic accident British engineer Percy Pilcher could have become the first pilot of a powered aeroplane
But for a tragic accident British engineer Percy Pilcher could have become the first pilot of a powered aeroplane - Alamy stock photo

Amy Johnson, Chuck Jaeger, Neil Armstrong and the Wright brothers. Just a few of the iconic names of aviation history that spring to mind and seem destined for immortality. But what of Percy Pilcher, British shipyard engineer whose engine-powered triplane should have propelled him into the limelight, who was meant to be the first to achieve sustained powered flight in the twilight years of the nineteenth century? But for a broken crankshaft, he would never have taken to the air in his substitute glider Hawk. But for the crowd of spectators and sponsors eager to see a display of aviation, on that fateful day of 30th September 1899 Pilcher might have cancelled the event entirely and rescheduled his triplane’s record attempt. And then disaster struck when Hawk’s tail snapped, and Pilcher plunged to the earth sustaining fatal injuries. Four years later in 1903 at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, the Wright Flyer made its 12-second flight, and Pilcher was all but forgotten.

As the Fortnightly Review observed in November 1899, ‘inventors of flying machines… must look mainly to posthumous glory as the reward for their labours’. And yet, as Pilcher’s obituarist W.E. Garret Fisher goes on to write: ‘students of aeronautics were less startled by Mr Pilcher’s partial success than grieved by his fate’. Having traced the idea of human flight back to the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus – the latter of which perished in Ovid’s account because he ‘flew too close to the sun’ – Garret Fisher strongly implies that due to the works of ‘Mr. Maxim, Professor Langley and Mr. Hargrave, of Otto Lilienthal, Mr. Pilcher and Mr. Chanute’, solving the greatest scientific challenge of the age was inevitable through ‘long and numerous experiments with these light one-man soaring apparatus’. Pilcher’s name, though perhaps not recognised by what Garrett Fisher describes as ‘the man in the street’, was already rubbing shoulders with the aviation engineers that mattered.

Percy Sinclair Pilcher was born in Bath in 1867, and while little is known of his youth an obituary (possibly from one of the earliest editions of Autocar) describes how ‘Mr. Pilcher was a young man of exceeding promise; formerly he was an officer in the Royal Navy, and attained, we believe, the rank of sublieutenant.’ The article goes on to say that due to his ambition to become ‘a modern scientific seaman’ Pilcher required engineering qualifications and was dispatched to Glasgow University (as well as briefly to University College, London) to study naval architecture and marine engineering, where ‘for his knowledge and experience’ was selected by the American-born British powered-flight innovator Hiram Maxim ‘to assist with his scientific experiments’ at Baldwyns Park. As well as being an officer in the Royal Navy, at the age of 20 Pilcher had also been an apprentice in the engineering department of shipbuilders Randolph, Elder and Co, where a colleague described him as ‘a pale serious fellow, with a great bent for invention, and a brain that was razor keen.’

I am glad to say my experiments threw a good deal of light on some difficult points

Percy Pilcher (1867 - 1899)

Having been taken on by Glasgow University as an assistant lecturer, Pilcher experimented in hull shape design for the shipbuilding industry. Meanwhile, his interest in aviation was starting to take shape, and he would spend his spare time building and testing gliders at his lodgings which he shared with his sister Ella (in her own right an aviation pioneer who would become the first woman to fly a glider in the UK). Objections from their landlady forced the Pilcher siblings to relocate experiments to a large room in the university where they built their version of a hang glider – that had been invented in 1853 by British aviation pioneer George Cayley – called the Bat, which had its maiden flight in 1885.

According to Grace’s Guide To British Industrial History, Bat’s airframe ‘was mostly Riga pine, and the wing fabric was “nainsook”, sewn by his sister Ella, who was a staunch supporter of his experiments. The Bat had a double use of the triangle control frame (TCF) (or A-frame for hang gliders, trikes, and ultralights) as both a piloting device as well as an airframe part.’ Later that year Pilcher met Germany’s legendary ‘flying man’ Otto Lilienthal – the first person to make documented, repeated and successful heavier-than-air glider flights – under whose influence he was to build two more gliders the Beetle and the Gull. For these early aircraft Pilcher adopted the technique for launching them via a towline. As aviation historian Philip Jarrett writes in Percy Pilcher and the Challenge of Flight, this was to become Pilcher’s preferred launch method, ‘and towed flights of half a minute or more were achieved in this manner. Two photographs taken during these early towed flights are the earliest known photographs of a heavier-than-air aircraft airborne in the British Isles.’

Inspired to ‘try and copy, and to try and proceed further with what he had done,’ Pilcher’s subsequent work based on Lilienthal’s ideas resulted in the 1898-6 Hawk, with which he broke the world distance record when he flew 820 feet at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. Around this time Pilcher shifted his focus to powered flight, developing an aircraft that was to be powered by a 4 hp internal combustion engine and bury him under a mountain of debt. Collaborating with Irish mechanical engineer Walter Wilson, the two men founded the Wilson-Picher company that set about designing a flat twin air cooled aero-engine to power the aircraft. But there were problems. With his gliders, Pilcher had mastered the concept of lift. But a powered plane would need to lift the internal combustion engine too. As the Guardian succinctly puts it: ‘More lift required more wingspan. But more wingspan would require wings so vast that they couldn’t be supported by the plane’s fuselage in the first place – a vicious circle. Pilcher was stuck.’ But then he received a letter from French American aviation expert Octave Chanute explaining how stacking wings one on top of the other could increase lift without placing unbearable strain on the fuselage.

Grace’s Guide takes up the story: ‘Having completed his triplane, he had intended to demonstrate it to a group of onlookers and potential sponsors in a field near Stanford Hall. Days before, the engine crankshaft had broken and, so as not to disappoint his guests, he decided to fly the Hawk instead.’ After the crash that caused Pilcher’s death, the Morning Post reported that an ‘inquest was held last evening on the body of Mr. Percy Pilcher, who was killed while experimenting with an aerial machine on Saturday.’ The article explains how despite the advice of Lord Braye, Pilcher was ‘anxious’ to go ahead with the flight demonstration partly due to the fact there were influential people (including Sir John Henniker Heaton MP) in the audience. A further report in the Yorkshire Gazette elaborated that ‘the machine appeared to sail well, and to soar to about 50 feet elevation, when suddenly it turned unexpectedly over and came down heavily in the park with a crash that could be heard some hundreds of yards. Lieutenant Pilcher sustained severe concussion of the brain and compound fracture of the thigh, and died early Monday morning without having recovered consciousness.’

In 1897 with his most successful glider - the Hawk - Pilcher broke the world distance record when he flew 820 feet at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire - Alamy stock photo

Pilcher was cut down in his prime at the age of 32. His papers went missing for many decades until Philip Jarrett’s research unearthed fragments of Pilcher’s correspondence in two American collections in the 1970s, and who would later publish lost diagrams of Pilcher’s triplane. Thanks to Jarrett, Pilcher’s name regained its rightful place on the timeline of early aviation and, as the centenary of the Wright brother’s historic flight approached, interest in Pilcher’s work grew. In 2003 the BBC2 television programme Horizon commissioned research at Cranfield University’s School of Aeronautics to assess the feasibility of Pilcher’s triplane. This led to the conclusion that had Pilcher succeeded in developing his aero-engine, ‘it is possible he would have succeeded in being the first to fly a heavier-than-air powered aircraft with some degree of control’. If Pilcher’s Stanford Hill demonstration had gone according to plan, the history of aviation would be radically different.

Cranfield University went on to build a full-size working replica (that included speculative modifications based on contemporary innovations by Chanute and the Wright brothers). The machine was flight-tested by aircraft designer Bill Brookes, who kept the aircraft aloft for 1 minute and 25 seconds under dead calm conditions (compared with the Wright brothers’ best flight at Kitty Hawk of 59 seconds). Brookes describes the moment he took to the air in Pilcher’s triplane as ‘magical’.