Read CHAPTER VIII of Learning to Fly A Practical Manual for Beginners , free online book, by Claude Grahame-White Harry Harper, on


It has been calculated that nearly half the aeroplane disasters of the early days were due to a structural weakness in machines, or to mistakes either in their design, or in such details as the position, shape, and size of their surfaces. To-day, thanks to science, and to the growing skill and experience of aeroplane designers and constructors, this risk of the collapse of a machine in the air, or of its failure to respond to its controls at some critical moment through an error in design, has been to a large extent eliminated. That such risks should be eliminated wholly is, as yet, too much to expect.

One of the factors making for safety has been the steady growth in the general efficiency of aircraft: in the curve of their wings which, as a result largely of scientific research, has been made to yield a greater lift for a given surface and to offer a minimum of resistance to their passage through the air; in the power and reliability of their engines; in the efficiency of their propellers; and in the shaping of the fusilage of a machine, and in the placing and “stream-lining” of such parts as meet the air, so as to reduce the head resistance which is encountered at high speeds. Such gains in efficiency, which give constructors more latitude in the placing of weight and strength where experience show they are needed, have gone far to produce an airworthy machine. In the old days, when machines were inefficient, a few revolutions more or less per minute in the running of an engine meant all the difference between an ascent and merely passing along the ground. But nowadays, through the all-round increase in efficiency that has been obtained, a machine will still fly upon its course without losing altitude, and respond to its controls, even should the number of revolutions per minute of its engine be reduced considerably.

When given a greater efficiency in lifting surfaces and power-plants and profiting also from the lessons that had been learnt in the piloting of machines constructors were able to devote their attention, and to do so with certainty instead of in a haphazard way, to the provision of factors of safety when a craft was in flight. With a machine of any given type, if driven through the air at a certain speed, it is possible to estimate with accuracy what the normal strains will be to which it is subjected. But even if such data are obtained, and the machine given the strength indicated, this factor of safety is insufficient. It is not so much the normal strains, as those which are abnormal, that must be guarded against in flight. A high-speed machine, if piloted on a day when the air is turbulent, may be subjected to extraordinarily heavy strains; rising many feet in the air one moment, falling again the next, and being met suddenly by vicious gusts of wind in much the same way that a fast-moving ship, when fighting its way through a rough sea, is beaten and buffeted by the waves. Air waves have not of course the weight, when they deliver a blow, that lies behind a mass of water; but that these wind-waves attain sometimes an abnormal speed, and have a tremendous power of destruction, is shown in the havoc that is caused by hurricanes.

It seems astonishing to many people that such a frail machine as the aeroplane, with its outspread wings containing nothing stronger often than wooden spars and ribs, covered by a cotton fabric, should be capable of being driven through the air at such a speed, say, as 100 miles an hour, encountering not only the pressure of the air, but resisting also the fluctuations to which it may be subjected. But, underlying the lightness and apparent frailty of such a wing, when one sees it in the workshop in its skeleton form, before it has been clothed in fabric, there is a skill in construction, and an experience in the choice, selection, and working of woods, that produces a structure which, for all its fragile appearance, is amazingly strong. And the same applies, nowadays, to all the other parts of an aeroplane. That it should have taken years to gain such strength, and to reduce so largely the risk of breakage, is not in itself surprising. Men had to devise new methods in construction always with the knowledge that weight must be saved and to create new factors of safety, before they could build an airworthy craft.

To-day, when a man flies, he need have no lurking fear, as had the pioneers, that his craft may break in the air. Even when it is driven through a gale, plunging in the rushes of the wind, yet held straining to its task by the power of its motor, the modern aeroplane can be relied upon; and not in one detail of its construction, but in every part. Experience, the researches of science, and the growing skill with which aircraft are built, stand between the airman and many of his previous dangers. The aeroplane to-day, one of the structural triumphs of the world in its lightness and its strength, has a factor of safety which is sufficient to meet, and to withstand, not merely ordinary strains, but any such abnormal stresses as it may encounter and which may be many times greater than the strains of normal flight.

The aviator knows also that his engine, as it gives him power to combat successfully his treacherous enemy, the wind, represents the fruit of many tests and of many failures, and of the spending of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Many of its defects have revealed themselves, and been rectified; it is no longer light where it should have weight of metal, nor weak where it should be strong. So far as any piece of mechanism can be made reliable, consisting as it does of a large number of delicate parts, operating at high speed, the aeroplane motor has been made reliable. But, so long as one motor is used, there must always, as we have said, remain a risk of breakdown. It is for this reason that, thanks largely to the stimulus of the war which has created a practical demand for such machines aeroplanes are now being built, and flown with success, which are fitted with duplicate motors. With such machines, which give us a first insight as to the aircraft of the future, engine failure begins to lose its perils particularly in regard to war. More than once during the great campaign, when flying a single-engine machine, an aviator has found his motor fail him, and has been obliged to land on hostile soil; with the result that he has been made prisoner. But with dual-engine machines it has been found that, when one motor has failed mechanically, or has been put out of action by shrapnel, the remaining unit has been sufficient though the machine has flown naturally at a reduced rate to enable the pilot to regain his own lines.

In peace flying, too, as well as in war, the multiple-engined aeroplane brings a new factor of safety. If one of his motors fails, and he is over country which offers no suitable landing-place, the pilot with a duplicate power-plant need not be concerned. His remaining unit or units will carry him on. There are problems with duplicate engines which remain to be solved problems of a technical nature which involve general efficiency, transmission gear, and the number and the placing of propellers; but already, though this new stride in aviation is in its earliest infancy, results that are most promising have been obtained.

To those who study aviation, and have done so constantly, say from the year 1909, one of the most striking signs of progress lies in the fact that, though unable at first to fly even in the lightest winds, the aviator of to-day will fight successfully against a 60 miles-an-hour wind, and will do battle if need be, once he is well aloft, with a gale which has a velocity of 90 miles an hour. He will ascend indeed, and fly, in any wind that permits him to take his machine from the ground into the air, or which the motor of his craft will allow it to make headway against. And here, though machines are still experimental, there is removed at one stroke the earliest and the most positive objection of those who criticised a man’s power to fly. When the first aeroplanes flew the sceptics said: “You have still to conquer the wind, and that you will never do. Aeroplanes will be built to fly only in favourable weather, and this will limit their use so greatly that they will have no significance.” But to-day the aviator has ceased, one might almost say, to be checked or hampered by the wind. If the need is urgent, as it often is in war, then it will be nothing less than a gale that will keep a pilot to the ground, provided he has a sufficiently powerful machine, and a suitable ground from which to rise and granted also that he has no long distance to fly. Wind-flying resolves itself into a question of having ample engine-power, of being able to launch a machine without accident, and get it to earth again without mishap; and of being able to make a reasonable headway against the wind when once aloft; and these difficulties should solve themselves, as larger and heavier machines are built.

Apart from the growing skill of the aviator, which has been bought dearly, science can now give him a machine, when he is in a wind, that needs no exhausting effort to hold it in flight. Craft are built, as a matter of certainty and routine, which have an automatic stability. Science has made it possible indeed, by a mere shaping and placing of surfaces, and without the aid of mechanical devices, to give an aeroplane such a natural and inherent stability that, when it is assailed by wind gusts in flight, it will exercise itself an adequate correcting influence. To understand what this means it should be realised that, when such a machine is in flight say in war on a strategical reconnaissance, and carries pilot and passenger, the former can take it to a suitable altitude and then set and lock his controls, and afterwards devote his time, in common with that of his passenger, to the making of observations or the writing of notes. The machine meanwhile flies itself, adapting itself automatically to all the differences of wind pressure which, if it had not this natural stability, would need a constant action of the pilot to overcome. All he need do is to maintain it on its course by an occasional movement of the rudder. With such a machine, even on a day when there is a rough and gusty wind, it is possible for an airman to fly for hours without fatigue; whereas with a machine which is not automatically stable, and needs a ceaseless operation of its controls, the physical exhaustion of a pilot, after hours of flight, is very severe.

So, already, one sees these factors of safety emerge and take their place. There is no longer a grave peril of machines breaking in the air; there need be no longer, with duplicate power-plants, the constant risk of engine failing; while that implacable and treacherous foe, the wind, is being robbed daily of its perils.