Jean Marie Le Bris
1817 - 1872

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Jean Marie Le Bris
Memorial Medallion Of Jean Marie Le Bris

The Le Bris Artificial Albatross
Drawing Of The Le Bris Artificial Albatross

The Le Bris Artificial Albatross
Patent Drawing Of The Le Bris Artificial Albatross - 1857

Jean Marie Le Bris was a French sailor and sea captain who had observed the soaring flight of the albatross on trips around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. He was fascinated to see the bird floating and wheeling without any apparent exertion, its wings held apparently rigid. Le Bris killed one of the soaring wonders and experimented with its wing. He thought he detected a quality to the wing's interaction with the air which he termed "aspiration."

By December of 1856 he had constructed the first of two large relatively lightweight gliders based closely on the proportions and configuration of the albatross, which he designated, not surprisingly, "The Artificial Albatross." His mechanical 50 foot wing-span wooden and cloth albatross was outfitted with hand-operated levers to change the angle of incidence of the wings and with foot-operated devices to alter the relative position of the tail. He mounted the flying machine on a horse-drawn cart and had the cart's driver head the horse down a road, into the wind. When Le Bris attempted to slip the restraining rope and his craft began to lift into the air, but it hesitated, still attached by a snag. The Artificial Albatross finally broke free, but one report has the driver becoming snared in the line and going aloft with Le Bris and the glider. The original written report of this event, proclaiming itself to be true and accurate, stated that Le Bris and the glider rose to about 300 feet, with the cart driver dangling below, sailed about 600 feet, and then came to a controlled and gentle landing, only damaging a wing, the cart driver landing softly and unhurt. What ever the truth about the altitude reached, the distance flown, or whether there was an unwilling cart driver hanging from a rope beneath, it seems entirely credible that Le Bris did manage to make a gliding flight in his machine.

After repairing the damage, Le Bris made a second attempt, this time dispensing with the cart, the horse and the driver, and fro this flight built a large mast and yard arm from which the repaired Artificial Albatross was suspended. The mast was mounted above the floor of a quarry, and Le Bris and his glider, once suspended, were about 100 feet above the quarry's bottom. The yard arm was turned so that the glider faced the wind, and after adjusting the incidence of the wings to a positive angle, Le Bris slipped the restraint and the glider began a long glide. Errant winds rising over the lip of the quarry caught Le Bris' machine and he over-corrected , beginning a series of undulations to the bottom where the Artificial Albatross hit hard and broke, as did one of Le Bris' legs.

The Le Bris Artificial Albatross
Photograph Of The Le Bris Artificial Albatross at Brest, France - 1868

His next attempt came in late 1867 or early 1868 at Brest, where he had raised funds to build the second Artificial Albatross, which was almost a duplicate of the first with the exception that it was somewhat lighter and carried a weight meant to provide some additional stability. This time he launched from a stationary cart, caught a rising wind by adjusting the incidence of the wings and managed to lift to about 35 feet and glide about 70 feet. He then tried glides with only ballast aboard and managed one flight of some 600 feet which reached an altitude of some 50 feet and finally landed gently. Subsequent attempts (absent Le Bris) resulted in damage, until finally the machine was severely damaged. Thus ended Le Bris career as a sailor of the air. About five years after this last series of aerial tests he was murdered by gang members. Le Bris' dedication to the cause of soaring flight, his innovative derivation of design and function from nature, and his translation to mechanical device, rather than merely being a copying of a natural form, was in itself a remarkable achievement. Le Bris was a pioneer and an innovative designer who drew on the familiar aspects of naval architecture to build what he hoped would be a ship of the air. He persevered with his experiments, succeeding in a fashion, despite personal injury and insult, and despite being relatively poor. The circumstances, dedication and achievement of Le Bris merit considerable recognition.

See a color photograph of a modern reconstruction of the
Le Bris Artificial Albatross on the L'Aviation Francaise web site