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


The masters of flying, and this is a fact the novice should ponder well, have been conspicuous almost invariably for their prudence. No matter how great has been their personal skill, they have never lost their respect for the air; and this is why so many of the great flyers, after running the heaviest of risks in their pioneer work, have managed to escape with their lives. What patience and sound judgment can accomplish, when pitted even against such dangers as must be faced by an experimenter when he seeks to fly, is shown by an incident from the early career of the Wright brothers. With one of their gliders, a necessarily frail machine, and in tests made when they were both complete novices, they managed to make nearly 1000 glides; and not once in all those flights, during which they were learning the rudiments of balance and control, did they have a mishap which damaged at all seriously their machine.

These two brothers, Wilbur and Orville, offer to the student of flying, apart from the historical interest which is attached to their work, a temperamental study of the greatest interest. Wilbur, who was grave, judicial a man of infinite patience and with an exceptional power of lucid thinking found in his brother and co-worker, Orville, a disposition just such as was necessary to strengthen and support him in his great research; a disposition more vivacious and more enthusiastic than his, and one which acted as a balance to his own gravity. The method of these brothers in first attacking a mass of data, most of it contradictory and a large amount of it of little intrinsic value and then framing their own research on lines which they discussed and studied with methodical care, forms a model of sound judgment for workers in any complex field. Their kite experiments, their gliders, their refusal to hasten their steps unduly in the fitting of an engine to their machine, reveal again their discretion, and that judgment which never failed them. Perseveringly and unswervingly, exhibiting doggedness without obstinacy, and with their work illuminated always by the highest intelligence, they moved surely from stage to stage; and at last, when they fitted a motor to their machine, such was their knowledge of the air, and of the control of their craft when in flight, that they were able to make this crucial step, from a glider to a machine driven by power, without any breakage of their apparatus or injury to themselves.

The same self-control marked them when, having demonstrated that men can ascend in a power-driven machine, and steer such a craft at will, they dismantled their apparatus and commenced their negotiations with foreign Governments. Wilbur Wright, too, when he came to France to give his first public demonstrations, provided by his methods a model for aviators, either present or future. He resisted all temptations to make injudicious flights. If he considered the weather conditions at all unsuitable he said that he would not ascend, no matter who might have come to see him fly, and that settled the question once and for all. He was deaf to all pleadings, to all proffered advice. When conditions were perfectly suitable, and then only, would he have his craft brought from its shed.

The same meticulous care, in every flight he made, marked his preparation of his machine. Motor, controls, propeller-gearing, every vital part, received its due attention; and this attention was never relaxed, no matter how frequently he flew, nor how great was his success. An observer of one of his early flights at Le Mans has given us an impression that is typical of this unremitting care. There was a question of some small adjustment that Wilbur had instructed should be made to the machine. When the time came to fly, and he was in the driving-seat waiting for the motor to be started, he called a question as to whether this detail had been attended to. He was assured it had. But this was not enough for Wilbur Wright. Climbing from his seat and walking round the biplane, he made a careful examination for himself, and then returned quietly to the front of the machine. People who came to see him fly, and expected some picturesque hero, leaping lightly into his machine and sweeping through the air, found that reality disappointed them. This quiet, unassuming man, who slept in his shed near his aeroplane, and took his meals there also, refused to be feted or made a fuss of; while his deliberation in regard to every flight, and his indifference to the wishes or convenience of those who were watching him, drove nearly frantic some of those influential people who, coming in motor-cars and with a patronising spirit, thought the aviator might be treated rather as a superior mountebank, who would be only too glad to come out and fly when a distinguished guest arrived.

M. Louis Bleriot, whose name was next to become world-famous, after that of the Wrights, and who owed his distinction to his crossing of the English Channel by air, revealed in his character determination and courage, and imagination as well. And yet allied to these qualities and here lay his temperamental strength he had a spirit of quiet calculation and an eery considerable shrewdness. He knew, and was not afraid of showing that he knew, the full value of caution. And yet on occasion also as in the cross-Channel flight he was ready to put everything to the test, and to take promptly and with full knowledge the heaviest of risks. The motor in his cross-Channel monoplane was an experimental one of low power, air-cooled, and prone to over-heat and lose power after only a short period of running. To cross the Channel, even under the most favourable circumstances, he knew this engine must run without breakdown for thirty-five or forty minutes. This it had not done at any rate in the air before. There was a strong probability and Bleriot knew this better than anyone else that the motor would fail before he reached the English shore, and that he would have to glide down into the sea. It was arranged that a torpedo-boat-destroyer should follow him, and this afforded an element of safety. But Bleriot guessed as was actually the case that he would outdistance this vessel in his flight, and soon be lost to the view of those upon it. And he did not deceive himself as to what might happen, if his engine stopped and he fell into the water. His monoplane, as it lay on the surface of the water, would, he knew, prove a very difficult object to locate by any vessel searching for it; while it was so frail that it would not withstand for long the buffeting of the waves. He carried an air-bag fixed inside the fusilage, it is true; but, in spite of this precaution, Bleriot knew he ran a very grave peril of being drowned. There was, on the morning of his flight, another disturbing factor to be reckoned with. The wind, calm enough when he first determined to start, began very quickly to rise; and by the time he had motored from Calais to the spot where his aeroplane lay, and the machine itself was ready for flight, the wind out to sea was so strong that the waves had become white-capped. But Bleriot, aware of the value at such moments of decision, had made up his mind. He knew that, if his engine only served him, his flight would be quickly made. And so he reckoned that, even though the wind was rising, he would be able to complete his journey before it had become high enough seriously to inconvenience him; and in this calculation, as events proved, he was right. His motor did its work; and, though the wind tossed his machine dangerously when he came near the cliffs of the English coast, he succeeded in making a landing and in winning the L1000 prize.

M. Hubert Latham, Bleriot’s competitor in the cross-Channel flight, had that peculiar outlook on life, with its blend of positive and negative puzzling often to its owner as well as to the onlooker that is called, for the sake of calling it something, the artistic temperament. He was impulsive, yet impassive often to a disconcerting extent: extremely sensitive and reserved as a rule, yet on occasion almost boyishly frank and communicative. He lacked entirely ordinary shrewdness, or everyday commonsense. He was a man of a deeply romantic temperament, and this inclined him towards aviation and the conquest of the air; while in actual piloting he had such a quickness and delicacy of touch, and such a sure and instinctive judgment of distance and of speed, that he was undoubtedly a born aviator one of, if not the, finest the world has seen. That he did not attain greater success, from a practical point of view, was due to the fact that he was without the level-headedness and the business ability which characterised others of the pioneers. When he was in flight in his Antoinette Latham flew that machine and no other he was a supreme artist. His machine was beautiful, and his handling of it was beautiful.

M. Henri Farman, beyond question, of course, another of the great pioneers, is a man of imagination and of a highly nervous temperament, yet possessing at the same time a very pronounced vein of caution. No success has for an instant caused him to lose his head. At Rheims, in 1909, when he had created a world’s record by flying for more than three hours without alighting, those who hastened to congratulate him, after his descent, found him absolutely normal and unmoved. Washing his hands at a little basin in the corner of the shed, he discussed very quietly and yet interestedly, and entirely without any affectation of nonchalance, the details of his flight and the behaviour of his motor. His attitude was that the flight was something, yet not a great deal, and that very much more remained to be done; a perfectly right and proper attitude, one which was just as it should be, yet one encountered very rarely under such circumstances human nature being what it is.

Farman’s patience, his perseverance, were in the very early days what gave him his first success. With the biplane the Voisins built him, for example, nothing but his own determination, and his ceaseless work upon his engine, enabled him to do more with this type of machine than others had done.

As the aeroplane increased in efficiency, and in the reliability of its engine, and was used in cross-country journeys, there came an era of flying contests, in which large prizes were offered, and in which airmen passed between cities and across frontiers, and traversed in their voyages the greater part of Europe. In the making of these flights, which needed an exceptional determination and skill, allied also to a perfect bodily fitness, there came into prominence certain aviators whose precision in their daily flights, passing across country with the speed and regularity of express trains, won admiration throughout the world. Prominent among these champions was the French naval officer, Lieut. J. Conneau, who adopted in his contests the flying name of “Beaumont.” His success and his exactitude, when piloting a Bleriot monoplane for long distances above unknown country, guiding himself by map and compass, gave the public an indication, for the first time, of what might be accomplished by an expert airman when flying a reliable machine. Lieut. Conneau’s success, winning as he did several of the great contests one after another, and the absence of error in his flying from stage to stage, and his accurate landings upon strange and often badly-surfaced aérodromes, should provide for the novice in aviation when the secret of this success is understood an object-lesson that is of value.

This quiet, efficient airman, and his methods in making himself so competent, afford indeed an interesting study. Here was one who, suited already by temperament for the tasks he undertook, trained himself with such care, with such patience, that he attained as nearly to the ideal as is possible for living man. When he had asked for, and obtained, permission from the Minister of Marine to study aviation in all its aspects, he began his task in a spirit that was admirable. “I was convinced,” he wrote afterwards, “that a perfect knowledge of machines and motors was necessary before one could use them.” For nearly a year, on leaving the sea, he worked to obtain a certificate as a practical engineer. This gained, he went through a period of motor-cycling and motor-car driving, varied by flights in captive balloons and free balloons, and afterwards in airships. Following this he obtained leave to stay for a time at Argenteuil, and enter the works of the builders of the Gnome motor. Here he lived the life of a mechanic, and learned to understand completely the operation of this famous engine, which he was destined to drive afterwards in his great flights.

Presently he went to Pau, in order to obtain his certificate as an aeroplane pilot. At first, taking his turn with a number of other pupils, he could only get a few minutes at a time in a machine. But being a keen observer he found that, by listening to the instructors, and watching the flights made, he could pick up useful information without being in the air; and this led him to the observation that “to learn to fly quickly, one must begin by staying on the ground.”

He secured in due course his certificate of proficiency, astonishing the instructors by his skill and sureness in the handling of his machine. Then followed what might be called an apprenticeship to cross-country flying. He made constant flights in all weathers, flying for instance from Pau to Paris, and studying closely not only the piloting of his machine and the aerial conditions he encountered, but also the art of using a map and compass, and in finding a path without deviation from point to point. Improving daily in confidence and skill, and learning practically all there was to be learned as to the handling of a Gnome-engined Bleriot, he was able soon to fly under weather conditions which would have seemed hopeless to a pilot of less experience; while engine failure and other troubles, which overtook him frequently on these long flights, taught him to alight without damaging his machine on the most unpromising ground.

Now, feeling himself at last competent, he obtained permission to figure on the retired list, so that he might take part in the aviation races which were then being organised. Of these great contests Lieut. Conneau won three in succession the Paris-Rome Race, in which he flew 928 miles in 21 hours 10 minutes; the European Circuit, in which he flew 1,060 miles in a total flying time of 24 hours 18 minutes; and the Circuit of Britain, in which he flew 1,006 miles in 22 hours 26 minutes. Lieut. Conneau’s success, which appeared extraordinary, and his skill in finding his way across country, which seemed abnormal, were due as a matter of fact to his assiduous preparation, and to a temperament which, even under the heavy strains of constant flying, saved him from errors of judgment or ill-advised decisions. His temperament was, indeed, ideal for a racing airman. He was quiet and collected, with a natural tendency to resist excitement or confusion. His physique was admirable, and he had that elasticity of strength, both in body and nerve, which are invaluable to a pilot when on long flights. Also, and this was of importance, Lieut. Conneau had a natural cheerfulness of disposition which carried him without irritation or despondency through those ordeals of weather, and of mechanical breakdowns and delays, which are inseparable from such contests as those in which he was engaged.

A contrast to Lieut. Conneau, both in temperament and method, was his rival Jules Vedrines the aviator who, notably in the Circuit of Britain, flew doggedly against Lieut. Conneau from stage to stage. Vedrines, who had not had the advantages in tuition that had been enjoyed by Lieut. Conneau, nor his grounding in technique, was nevertheless a born aviator; a man of a natural and exceptional skill. In energy, courage, and determination he was unexcelled; but such qualities, though of extreme value in a long and trying contest, were marred by an impetuosity and an excitability which Vedrines could not master, and which more than once cost him dear. He had not, besides, as was shown in the Circuit of Britain, that skill in steering by map and compass which aided Lieut. Conneau so greatly in all his flying.

A personality of unusual interest was that of the late Mr. S. F. Cody a man of a great though untutored imagination, and of an extraordinary and ceaseless energy. A big man, and one whom it might be thought would have been clumsy in the handling of an aeroplane, he piloted the biplanes of his own construction with a remarkable skill. He flew no other, of course, and this was greatly to his advantage in actual manipulation. The great pilots who have excelled one may instance again Lieut. Conneau have concentrated their attention as a rule on one type of machine, learning all there is to be learned about this particular craft, and being prepared in consequence, through their knowledge both of its capacities and weaknesses, for any contingency that may arise in flight. Another instance of such specialisation was provided by Mr. Gustave Hamel. M. Bleriot an admirable judge in this respect singled out Mr. Hamel, while this young man was learning to fly in France, as an aviator of quite unusual promise; and his prediction was, of course, more than fulfilled. Devoting himself exclusively to the monoplane, Mr. Hamel became a pilot whose perfection of control, very wonderful to witness, was marked strongly by his own individuality. He had beautiful “hands” a precision and delicacy on the controls which marked his flying from that of all others; while his judgment of speed and distance, which was remarkable, represented natural abilities which had been improved and strengthened by his constant flying.