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First manned flight, Brompton Dale
Brompton Dale, near Scarborough, North Yorkshire, UK
associated engineer
Sir George Cayley
date  1853
era  Victorian  |  category  Airfield/Hangar/Aeronautics  |  reference  SE936834
Scientific genius Sir George Cayley pioneered manned flight in an era before powered flight was technically possible, long before the Wright brothers' successes. In 1853, he invented a glider capable of bearing a man aloft, and later theorised about using a hot-air motor as a power source. His surviving documentation has enabled two replica gliders to be built and flown.
Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) was born in Scarborough and lived at Brompton Hall (SE942822), where he investigated the problems of flight and how to overcome them. He had a workshop (SE943822) in the grounds where he carried out many experiments, aided by local mechanic Thomas Vick.
He began his quest for manned flight in 1804, at a time when powered motion of any kind was in its infancy — Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) had invented the first road locomotive in 1801 and the first rail locomotive in 1804. These early steam engines would have been far too heavy to lift an aircraft aloft. However, Cayley used his observations of birds' ability to soar without flapping their wings to design a glider. His successful full-size monoplane glider flew as a kite in 1808.
By 1849, Cayley was testing a triplane design of glider. Its three-layer stack of wings had an elongated hexagonal plan shape, with a cruciform tailplane attached for stability. An open cabin with three lightweight wheels hung below the wings, with its own tailplane for steering. The wings and tailplanes were of linen stretched over a cane frame, braced with wires. The first passenger was a boy, about 10 years old, who flew in the glider for several metres on more than one occasion.
Cayley returned to a monoplane concept for his next manned glider design, which he called The Governable Parachute. His paper about it appeared in Mechanics' Magazine on the 25th September 1852. It had a dihedral wing about 43 sq m in area, uplifted by 8-10 degrees from the horizontal, with a cruciform tailplane attached at one end. In plan, the shape of the wing and tailplane resembled an angelfish.
The boat-shaped undercarriage and its tailplane were similar to that of the 1849 glider. The wing above rested on a hollow square-section timber beam, tapering from the centre towards the ends. The fabric of the wings was again stretched over canes and wire-braced. The whole contraption weighed some 68kg and another 68kg was allowed for the weight of the passenger.
By 1853, the prototype glider was ready. It was tested at Brompton Dale, 1.5km north east of Cayley’s home at Brompton Hall. The site was chosen because it had a slope at the eastern end that would make launching easier. While the pilot sat in the aircraft, workmen hauled it down the slope with ropes until it lifted into the air. Apparently it flew for about 180m before crash landing.
The pilot was not Cayley himself — he was then 79 years old — though reports vary as to whether it was his groom/coachman John Appleby (c.1833-1901) or his grandson George John Cayley (1826-78) that was the first adult to fly in a heavier-than-air machine.
In almost 60 years of experiments, Cayley understood the principles of aviation and produced the essential elements for practical aircraft. His vision informed the future of airborne transport.
Fifty years after the governable parachute, American brothers Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright made their first powered flight on 17th December 1903. In 1909, Wilbur Wright reportedly said of Cayley that, "About 100 years ago an Englishman, Sir George Cayley, carried the science of flying to a point which it had never reached before and which it scarcely reached again during the last century".
John Stanley Sproule (1915-94) built a full-scale replica of Cayley's 1853 glider for a 1973 television programme. It had a wing area of 40 sq m and a wingspan of 8.5m, and flew at around 40kph. It was piloted by Alan Derek Piggott (b.1922).
Sproule said of his replica that, "The machine, while extremely sensitive to wind direction in yaw, exhibited great stability in roll and lack of control in this mode did not produce problems of any kind". It is now housed in the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington.
Another life-size replica of the 1853 glider was made using modern materials, by BAE apprentices at Brough, near Hull, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its first manned flight. Sir Richard Branson (b.1950) was the pilot at Brompton Dale in July 2003.
Research: ECPK
"Sir George Cayley: The Invention of the Aeroplane near Scarborough at the Time of Trafalgar" by J.A.D. Ackroyd, in Journal of Aeronautical History, London, 2011
"Sir George Cayley, the father of aeronautics. Part 1. The invention of the aeroplane" by J.A.D. Ackroyd, in Notes & Records of the Royal Society, Vol.56, pp.167-181, London, 2002
"Aviation: an historical survey from its origins to the end of World War II" by Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith, HMSO for the Science Museum, London, 1970
"Sir George Cayley's Aeronautics 1796-1855" by Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith, HMSO for the Science Museum, London, 1962
"Interpretive History of Flight: a survey of the history and development of aeronautics with particular reference to contemporary influences and conditions" by Maurice John Bernard Davy, HMSO for the Science Museum, London, 1937
reference sources   DNB

First manned flight, Brompton Dale