Though not well known to many who have glanced into the world of aviation, George Cayley was truly one of the pioneers of flight, a man who developed an interest in the subject as early as ten years old. Remarkably, Cayley was born in 1773 and died in 1857 at 84 years old, a man who lived long before man succeeded in mastering the techniques of flight. In spite of this, he is credited as a person who had a tremendous impact on future generations who would build on his research work, turning aviation theory into reality.
While it is understandable that the Wright brothers will feature prominently when the subject of aviation history is mentioned, there were other pioneers of flight who also deserve a mention. The dream of taking flight has inspired humans to imagine ways to defy gravity and become like the birds of heaven, soaring high above the earth enjoying the views and the freedom it brings. Aviation may now be an everyday occurrence for modern man but this was not always the case. As we sit in the comfort of a giant aircraft, crossing the Atlantic while we watch movies and sip whisky, we would do well to remember other pioneers of aviation, people like Sir George Cayley. And who might George Cayley be, you may ask?
George Cayley is considered by historians in the field to be the first person to understand and explain the principles of flight, even putting his theories to the test by building models that demonstrated those principles. Though he pre-dated aviation as we know it, he did enjoy the experience of flying when he created the very first working aircraft, a glider. Cayley is known to have flown on at least two occasions, once accompanied by a ten year-old boy and once by his coachman. Operating on the basis of the principles of flight, George Cayley was able to test his theories where it really mattered, not on the drawing board, but in the sky.
The light glider may pale into insignificance when compared with the aircraft created in the past century, but this was a wonderful achievement for its time and more importantly, proved that flight for humans was possible, based on the well explained and tested principles Cayley presented for future generations. The legacy left behind after George Cayley’s death was knowledge. Having studied the principles of flight as a qualified engineer, he was able to put in writing his thoughts, experiments, successes and failures so that future aeronautics experts could benefit and translate his work into reality.
Cayley was a man who took a scientific approach to the study of aviation. This was more than just a hobby for him. Cayley was inspired first by the notion that man could fly and was inspired even more when he proved to himself it could be accomplished. Did George Cayley have any perception of what the future might hold for aviation? Did he have visions of aircraft that could fly faster than the speed of sound? We will never know. What we do know is that Sir George Cayley was one of the true pioneers of aviation and that he has left behind a legacy that has been inspirational to those who were fortunate to live at a time when flight as we know it, became possible. Perhaps the next time we hop on a plane to fly to another city, another country or even another continent, we will take a moment to remember Sir George Cayley.