5 Recklessly Stupid Attempts at Human Flight (That Worked)
We like to think of early aviators as careful, studious men who cautiously weighed every possible design decision, knowing full well that somebody would be trusting their life to those calculations at the prototype stage. It turns out that wasn't quite the case; it was more a matter of slapping as many of whatever they had lying around the workshop together and getting a running start off the nearest cliff. The truly crazy part? Sometimes it actually worked.
Look at that thing: It's ridiculous. It looks like something you'd call bullshit on in a video game. It looks like a kite made out of foreskin. It looks like the Batplane made out of wood ...
And that's exactly what it is (a wooden Batplane, we mean -- not the foreskin thing). Inventor and engineer Clement Ader is best remembered by history for improving the design of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, and slightly less well known for being a turn-of-the-century alternate history Batman.
Ader's first attempt at a functioning flying machine (no, this wasn't a fluke. Ader was all about two things: building bat-shaped flying machines and inspiring terror in his enemies), which he called the Eole, had a 45-foot wingspan and was powered by a steam engine, which is the equivalent of attempting to power a race car with positive thinking. Despite the meager power supply, however, in 1890 the Eole was able to travel 165 feet and achieved some sweet air, reaching a maximum altitude of 8 inches. That may seem like nothing, but it was the first time a manned, engine-powered flying machine ever got off the ground, technically making Ader the world's first pilot, and technically making the world's first airplane a Batplane.
"Let's hover in front of the full moon and just freak everyone out."
He upped the Bat-ante with his next design, a gas-engine model called the Avion III (pictured above). The only problems Ader saw with this design was that it was virtually impossible to steer and prone to terrifying the holy shit out of unsuspecting bats who thought they'd just met their God. Not letting a petty thing like "maneuverability" derail his quest to sit inside a giant bat while laughing maniacally, Ader outfitted the Avion III with propeller blades that worked to stabilize and steer the craft. The advent of other aircraft that didn't look like they were designed by a 12-year-old boy with freshly murdered parents pretty much spelled the end for the Avion III -- but not before Ader allegedly conducted a test flight in 1897 that successfully flew 1,000 feet, prompting the Edwardian-era joker to abandon his ne'er-do-well shenanigans and surrender to the constabulary posthaste.
"I think I'll become a butler instead. What could possibly go wrong?"
This is the creation of one Horatio Phillips, who is best known for designing the world's first bicycle loom. No? Then what is that thing? The world's first multistage radiator? The first Ikea book-storage system? The first drive-thru Venetian blind? Holy shit, don't tell us that's supposed to be a plane?!
Yup: Phillips slapped 20 wooden wings onto his bicycle, added a 22-horsepower engine and, we imagine, to nobody's greater surprise than Phillips himself, the 10-foot-tall, 600-pound aircraft lifted off the ground and flew nearly 50 feet, reaching speeds of up to 34 mph.
Our drunkest mathematicians assure us that 20 wings are nearly 10 times safer than two wings.
Jesus, we're starting to suspect that everything flies if you just flap it hard enough and think positive thoughts.
And as proof of this hypothesis, here's Phillips' next design:
The plane after that? 4.2 million wings.
Yes, this splintery cage was the epitome of Phillips' revolutionary "two wings good, 200 wings gooder" philosophy of flight mechanics. As if in direct mockery of gravity itself, of course this new multiplane flew as well: In 1907, it made its maiden journey of roughly 500 feet. It was like a teenager bringing a hot prom date in to meet his lame parents, a singularly awkward and embarrassing way to introduce something as sexy as powered flight to the United Kingdom.
William Romme received funding to build the umbrella plane after his concept won a 1910 aircraft design contest, either because it was one of those contests where "everyone's a winner!" or because the only other entrant was Horatio Phillips, who just hot-glued massive piles of randomly distributed wings to a sewing machine.
Romme's prototype, as you can see, consisted of little more than a disclike wooden frame with canvas draped over the front, taking its design cues from the humble umbrella. Evidently having never handled nor seen an umbrella in real life, Romme was flabbergasted when the flimsy plane was flipped over by the wind during a test run. The plane was badly damaged, and the engineer learned a valuable lesson ... which he promptly forgot, and then built another plane just like the first. This model was slightly more successful, soaring to a dizzying height of 15 feet before presumably folding inside out and whipping down the street to get run over by a bus.
"If at first you don't succeed, repeat the same mistake over and over again."
Italian aeronautical engineer Luigi Stipa presumably designed the Stipa-Caproni in 1932 on a drunken bet that he could make an empty beer can fly. It was a bet he won: The Stipa-Caproni was so stable in flight that you couldn't actually turn the damn thing, which is kind of an integral part of flying, as very few airports simply point you toward your destination and wish you Godspeed.
"If you get to the ocean, you've gone too far. Just bail out and we'll find you."
It wasn't Stipa's fault, though: His primary interest was in demonstrating the efficiency of the engine prototype, and it actually succeeded in that regard well beyond expectations. It's just that, like all eccentric geniuses, he got so focused on getting one thing perfect that he plain forgot to bring the rest of the plane. The end result was a brilliant, stable, efficient new power source ... with two stubby wings plugged into each side and a pilot comically strapped directly on top of the engine like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove.
"Uh, hey ... Ground Control? I think someone circumcised my plane."
The Stipa-Caproni was a universally terrible plane, but the concept was sound; it is commonly believed that Stipa's design was the inspiration for the modern jet engine. That's right: That flying garbage disposal up there was the great-granddaddy of those bitchin' fighter planes from Top Gun.
Engineers in the early 1900s frequently used tetrahedron cells -- an open-ended pyramid-shaped design -- in civil engineering because they had a good strength-to-weight ratio. Then Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the metal detector and patent fraud, heard they were "good," clapped his hands and ran off to build a plane out of them.
"And we'll use the leftover parts to start American Gladiators a century early!"
Fortunately, nobody thought to remind Bell that just because something is strong, that doesn't mean it can fly -- gorillas, for example, rarely get airborne -- and that just because he invented the telephone, it doesn't automatically make him an aircraft engineer. We say "fortunately," because Bell's building-inspired aircraft, the Cygnet, actually flew. It consisted of 3,393 tetrahedral cells forming a massively bulky wingspan that stretched 42.5 feet, but only weighed a paltry 208 pounds. An unmanned flight was conducted in 1907, with the Cygnet tethered to a steamship on a lake. When the steamship took off, the Cygnet -- looking for all the world like a set of bleachers at a high school football game -- inexplicably launched into the sky. Less inexplicably, it crashed upon landing. Bell was undeterred by the whole "can't ever come back down" problem and had the Cygnet repaired for another test run.
Only this time there was a person in it.
We're not sure if he was in there on purpose or just got his foot caught at the worst possible time.
Just like the initial run, the Cygnet lifted off and was able to ascend 168 feet. And again, just like the initial run, the plane made entirely out of K'Nex roughly slammed back into the water after seven minutes of flight, flipped over, snapped in two and sent the world's bravest and least surprised pilot into the icy lake. Thankfully, said pilot survived ... only to become the first person to die in a manned air flight some seven months later while testing another lunatic's experimental aircraft.
A lunatic named Orville Wright.
Have too much extra cash? Need a comedy writer? Then contact Mike Cooney at Mikey.Cooney@gmail.com.
For more haphazard pieces of aviation history, check out 7 Planes Perfectly Designed (To Kill The People Flying Them) and 8 WTF Aircraft Designs That Actually Caught Air.