When most people think of aviation or historical flights, the first thing that pops into their minds is the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although they left a lasting mark on aviation history, the Wright Brothers were just building on what many ancestors of aviation had already discovered, recorded and put into practice. One of those aviation ancestors was Sir George Cayley.
Sir George Cayley was born December 27, 1773 in Scarborough, England. He died shortly before his 84th birthday on December 15, 1857. Cayley had six daughters and one son. He served for the Whig Party as a member of Parliament for Scarborough from 1832- 1835. He also co-founded what is known today as the University of Westminster where he served as chairman for several years. Sir Cayley was an engineer. He was part of numerous engineering projects. A few of those projects helped him to develop seat belts, tension-spoke wheels, the “Universal Railway” also known as caterpillar tractors and automatic signals for railway crossings. Although he had many achievements and accolades, he is best known for his pioneering endeavors in aerodynamics.
Sir George Cayley had a passion for flying machines. In 1799, he etched on one side of a silver disk his design of a flying apparatus that resembles the modern day airplane. It contained fixed wings, a fuselage, a tail unit with a rudder and elevators, a cockpit and moving vanes that was a model of the modern propeller. On the other side was etched the forces that control flight. Early in his aviation career, he used models to test his scientific experiments. It was through these experiments that he identified the four forces that influence flight: thrust, lift, drag and gravity. In 1804, Cayley built a model glider which was basically a kite on top of a pole. It was 5 feet in length. It had a fixed wing set at an angle, a tail unit attached to the fuselage with universal joints and ballast to control the center of gravity. Upon successful flight of this model, Cayley built a glider that had a total wing area of 172 square feet that successfully flew. In 1809-1810 he had published in Nicholson’s Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts his famous three-part paper which was titled “On Aerial Navigation.” This outlined the principles of flight. In this treatise, he proceeded to describe in great detail why flying machines do not have to have ornithopters, which were flapping wings that mimicked the motion of birds and was the common thinking of researchers prior to Cayley. He stated in his three-part paper that lift, propulsion and control were the elements for successful flight. After many models, Sir Cayley concentrated on building life-size gliders. In 1849, his full-size glider was successfully flown by a ten-year-old boy. Later, in 1853, he built a glider with three horizontal wing structures, known as a triplane. It was piloted by his coachman who managed to fly it across Brompton Dale for 900 feet. That was the first recorded flight by an adult in an aircraft.
Sir George Cayley devoted his life to figuring out the problems of flight. He knew that for sustained, powered flight to be successful, a small and light-weight engine would need to be used. He attempted to develop an engine using gunpowder, however it was not reliable. It wasn’t until Orville and Wilbur Wright’s flight in 1903 that the first successful powered flight happened.
In 1909, Wilbur Wright paid tribute to Cayley saying: “About 100 years ago, an Englishman, Sir George Cayley, carried the science of flight to a point which it had never reached before and which it scarcely reached again during the last century.”
It is because of Sir George Cayley’s devotion, passion and persistence towards aviation that society today can travel to any part of the world in the blink of an eye. It is no wonder that he is known as the “Father of Aviation” or the “Father of Aerodynamics.”