Percy Sinclair Pilcher
1866 - 1899

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Percy Pilcher

Percy Pilcher's interest in flight began in 1895, after a six-year stint with the Royal Navy and several years working as an engineer. Pilcher built his first glider, the "Bat," in the first part of 1895. Later that year Pilcher contacted Otto Lilienthal, met with him in person and discussed Lilienthal's by-then famous gliding experiments. Hiram Maxim spotted Pilcher's obvious talent and ability and in 1896 offered him a job working on the enormous Maxim Test Rig. Pilcher was certainly industrious, for his first three gliders: the "Bat," in at least three versions, the "Beetle" and the "Gull" (which apparently made only an initial glide) were all built and flown in 1895.

The Pilcher Bat Glider - 1895
The Pilcher Bat Glider - 1895

Pilcher was not pleased with the performance of the "Beetle" or the "Gull" and returned to the "Bat" for inspiration for what would be his most famous glider, the "Hawk." He gave some thought to powering the "Hawk" and received a patent for a powered version with a shaft-driven pusher propeller. The "Hawk" featured a lightweight wheeled landing gear and broad Lilienthal-like wings. Whereas Lilienthal built a hill from which he could glide into whatever direction the wind was blowing, Pilcher developed a reliable method of towing his glider aloft.

Plan View Of A Powered Hawk Glider - 1897
Patent Drawing For A Powered "Hawk" Glider Using A 4 h.p. Engine (not flown) - 1897

Percy Pilcher always pursued his gliding experiments with the thought of ultimately powering a flying machine. Consequently his gliders reflected design elements he was consciously developing towards the goal of powered flight. By late 1897 Pilcher was in contact with Octave Chanute and was aware of the strides which Chanute and Herring had made in gliding flight the previous year. By the fall of 1899 Pilcher believed he had answered the questions of how to control a powered craft (a doubtful proposition) and his powered triplane resulted. That flying machine was to be powered by a 4 h.p. engine driving two propellers, one tractor and one pusher, not unlike the powered biplane configuration adopted by Augustus Herring in 1898. Aviation historian Philip Jarrett's reconstruction of the configuration of the powered Pilcher Triplane (ca. 1980 ) includes only a shaft-driven pusher propeller design, as on the postulated powered "Hawk." By the last day of September 1899, Pilcher's powered triplane was very nearly ready for flight (save, apparently, for mounting the engine), but on that day Pilcher was gliding in his "Hawk." His theretofore reliable "Hawk" suffered a structural failure, fell, and Pilcher died two days later. Pilcher's powered triplane was never flown.

RECOMMENDED READING: Another Icarus - Percy Pilcher and the Quest for Flight
by Philip Jarrett, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 1987; ISBN 0-87474-556-X

Link to an anthology of informative web sites about Percy Pilcher