NWORA Remembrance Vol.4 - NE99

NE99

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Forget-me-not Remembrance Vol.4 26 T he miracle of flight! How long have men, chained to earth by the invisible forces of gravity, cast their eyes heavenward to envy the birds their freedom of the air? Since the classic days when Daedalus, fired by the sight of birds in flight, fashioned from the feathers of eagles those fabled wings which enabled him and Icarus to escape their cavern prison, men of intelligence have dreamed of flying. Six hundred years ago Roger Bacon made his wonderful prophecy: We will be able to construct machines which will propel ships with greater speed than a whole garrison of rowers, and which will need only one pilot to guide them. We will be able to propel carriages with incredible speed without the assistance of an animal. And we will be able to make machines which by means of wings will enable us to fly like birds. Five centuries elapsed before his mechanical ships and carriages came to pass. His genius could dip into the future for 500 years and see what would be. When Tennyson envisioned his argosies of the air, his prophecy was less remarkable because mechanical traction on land and sea was already accomplished. But not all the poets, nor the genius of a da Vinci, could give man wings. The problems were too difficult, too little understood. Lilienthal with his gliders began to work out the science of flight for a short five years before he crashed to his death in 1896. I retain vivid impressions of the enthusiasm with which young percy Sinclair Pilcher took up the problem in England in the 1890s. Pilcher built four gliders between 1895 and1899:The Bat; The Beetle;The Gull; The Hawk (1896). The Hawk was mostly built of bamboo and included a wheeled undercar- riage. He had plans to add some sort of engine to it. On 30 September 1899 while he was being pulled swiftly into the air by two horses the boom holding up the tail of the craft broke, plunging Pilcher to his death. The excitement in an elect circle when he made his first glides, the popular interest that was aroused by his announcement that he would launch himself on his latest glider from that hill in Hertford and the gasp of horror from the onlookers as he fell like Icarus spelt both the fruition and end of a new version of the noble idea. So the two pioneers who spurned the safe and comfortable ground of the theorists went into the air to try to find the facts of flight. They started to ride the treacherous winds, perched on their sticks and canvas, until the winds sought to put a stop to the invasion of man by toppling them to their deaths. The crown of victory was not for them. The laurels were destined to go to Wilbur and Orville Wright in the United States. Yet so impossible did flight seem that even Wilbur Wright, after a series of experiments in which their practice failed to square with Lilienthal's theory, joined the prophets with the remark: "Men will sometime fly, but it will not be in our lifetime." Luckily his pessimism vanished, and he continued his attack on the problems, known and unknown, of flight. The passing years will weave their legends round the Wrights, with fact and fiction so intertwined that it will be difficult to disentan- gle one from the other. The fact that they once made bicycles" in some one-horse American village," as It has been described, has given rise among many to the impression that the Wrights were two illiterates from the backwoods, a couple of ordinary mechanics who solved the problem of flight by some lucky accident. Nothing could be farther from the truth and nothing do them a greater injustice. In the Great War we had experience of what air-raids can do, the perversion of the promise the Wright brothers brought to civilization. But the desire of every battlefield commander since Alexander the Great had finally come to be fulfilled: For who had not wanted to see over the next ridge or to observe the fall of shot when he fired his guns. Even at sea, why was it a man was always stationed in the "crow's nest"? And the ability to fly over enemy territory to select one's targets now became a major asset. The possibilities of the aeroplane, particularly in war, impressed themselves at a very early date, and so long ago as November 1912 a popular periodical stated: High Flight By Terence Cottrell BA(Hons), MA, JD.

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