Anyone who has ever stepped on a plane has Sir George Cayley to think for his contributions to the field of aeronautics. Without Cayley, developing the technology around flight might have taken much longer and commercial air travel might not be where it is today. Known as the “Father of Aeronautics,” Cayley designed the first glider that ever carried a human being and drew up an airship design in the early 19th century.
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Sir George Cayley was born in Yorkshire in 1773. He was said to have been an inquisitive child who was always fascinated by flight. Even as a schoolboy, he filled his notebooks with sketches and notes that showed he was already working on his theories about the underlying principles of flight. By 1799, he had created his first design for a modern powered aircraft. This led him to the invention of a hand-launched glider in 1804. Although it did not carry a person, its launch has been called history’s first airplane flight. The model included a number of elements found on aircrafts today including an adjustable tailplane and a vertical fin.
Cayley’s experiments led him to discover the four vector forces that affect an aircraft. Today, those forces of lift, thrust, gravity, and drag are the basic principles used in the aeronautics industry. Cayley watched birds to get a sense of how wing size was related to body weight and how those same principles would be transferred to an airplane. He suggested the general shape of commercial aircraft as they look today. Cayley funded much of the work he did out of his own pocket including what may have been the first manned glider flight. Prior to that, he had reportedly designed a biplane in which a small boy flew, but he knew he needed to design a craft that could carry a man. According to the BBC, the experiment in which this occurred was carried out in 1853, and his coachman was the first pilot.
One interesting element of Cayley’s work and his persistence is that during his lifetime, it all remained in the realm of the theoretical. Cayley was both relentless and rigorous in his use of both engineering principles and the scientific method to test and refine his theories, but he ran up against a number of frustrating dead ends and failures as well. For example, he knew he had to find a power source for air travel to be possible and he knew that steam power was insufficient. He searched for ways to develop an air engine, but he was not successful. He also tried on several occasions to create an aeronautical society without success. Cayley published several papers in his lifetime and excerpts from his notebooks can be viewed at the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Cayley’s extraordinary gifts and his passion for the idea of flight is at the root of the entire field of aeronautics as it is known today. From light experimental flights to space flight, the work of Sir George Cayley made it all possible.