The Mastery of the Air

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Author: William J. Claxton

Chapter XLVII Accidents and Their Cause (Cont.)

Many people still think that if the engine of an aeroplane should stop while the machine was in mid-air, a terrible disaster would happen. All petrol engines may be described as fickle in their behaviour, and so complicated is their structure that the best of them are given to stopping without any warning. Aeroplane engines are far superior in horse-power to those fitted to motorcars, and consequently their structure is more intricate. But if an airman’s engine suddenly stopped there would be no reason whatever why he should tumble down head first and break his neck. Strange to say, too, the higher he was flying the safer he would be.

All machines have what is called a GLIDING ANGLE. When the designer plans his machine he considers the distribution of the weight or the engine, pilot and passengers, of the petrol, aeronautical instruments, and planes, so that the aeroplane is built in such a manner that when the engine stops, and the nose of the machine is turned downwards, the aeroplane of its own accord takes up its gliding angle and glides to earth.

Gliding angles vary in different machines. If the angle is one in twelve, this would mean that if the glide wave commenced at a height of 1 mile, and continued in a straight line, the pilot would come to earth 12 miles distant. We are all familiar with the gradients shown on railways. There we see displayed on short sign-posts such notices as "1 in 50", with the opposite arms of the post pointing upwards and downwards. This, of course, means that the slope of the railway at that particular place is 1 foot in a distance of 50 feet.

One in twelve may be described as the natural gradient which the machine automatically makes when engine power is cut off. It will be evident why it is safer for a pilot to fly, say, at four or five thousand feet high than just over the tree-tops or the chimney-pots of towns. Suppose, for example, the machine has a gliding angle of one in twelve, and that when at an altitude of about a mile the engine should stop. We will assume that at the time of the stoppage the pilot is over a forest where it is quite impossible to land. Directly the engine stopped he would change the angle of the elevating plane, so that the aeroplane would naturally fall into its gliding angle. The craft would at once settle itself into a forward and slightly downward glide; and the airman, from his point of vantage, would be able to see the extent of the forest. We will assume that the aeroplane is gliding in a northerly direction, and that the country is almost as unfavourable for landing there as over the forest itself. In fact, we will imagine an extreme case, where the airman is over country quite unsuitable for landing except toward the south; that is, exactly opposite to the direction in which he starts to glide. Fortunately, there is no reason why he should not steer his machine right round in the air, even though the only power is that derived from the force of gravity. His descent would be in an immense slope, extending 10 or 12 miles from the place where the engine stopped working. He would therefore be able to choose a suitable landing-place and reach earth quite safely.

But supposing the airman to be flying about a hundred yards above the forest-an occurrence not likely to happen with a skilled airman, who would probably take an altitude of nearly a mile. Almost before he could have time to alter his elevating plane, and certainly long before he could reach open ground, he would be on the tree-tops.

It is thought that in the near future air-craft will, be fitted with two or more motors, so that when one fails the other will keep the machine on its course. This has been found necessary in Zeppelin air-ships. In an early Zeppelin model, which was provided with one engine only, the insufficient power caused the pilot to descend on unfavourable ground, and his vessel was wrecked. More recent types of Zeppelins are fitted with three or four engines. Experiments have already been made with the dual-engine plant for aeroplanes, notably by Messrs. Short Brothers, of Rochester, and the tests have given every satisfaction.

There is little doubt that if the large passenger aeroplane is made possible, and if parliamentary powers have to be obtained for the formation of companies for passenger traffic by aeroplane, it will be made compulsory to fit machines with two or more engines, driving three or four distinct propellers. One of the engines would possibly be of inferior power, and used only in cases of emergency.

Still another cause of accident, which in some cases has proved fatal, is the taking of unnecessary risks when in the air. This has happened more in America and in France than in Great Britain. An airman may have performed a very difficult and daring feat at some flying exhibition and the papers belauded his courage. A rival airman, not wishing to be outdone in skill or courage, immediately tries either to repeat the performance or to perform an even more difficult evolution. The result may very well end in disaster, and

FAMOUS AIRMAN KILLED

is seen on most of the newspaper bills.

The daring of some of our professional airmen is notorious. There is one particular pilot, whose name is frequently before us, whom I have in mind when writing this chapter. On several occasions I have seen him flying over densely-packed crowds, at a height of about two hundred feet or so. With out the slightest warning he would make a very sharp and almost vertical dive. The spectators, thinking that something very serious had happened, would scatter in all directions, only to see the pilot right his machine and jokingly wave his hand to them. One trembles to think what would have been the result if the machine had crashed to earth, as it might very easily have done. It is interesting to relate that the risks taken by this pilot, both with regard to the spectators and himself, formed the subject of comment, and, for the future, flying over the spectators’ heads has been strictly forbidden.

From 1909 to 1913 about 130 airmen lost their lives in Germany, France, America, and the British Isles, and of this number the British loss was between thirty and forty. Strange to say, nearly all the German fatalities have taken place in air-ships, which were for some years considered much safer than the heavier-than-air machine.

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Chicago: William J. Claxton, "Chapter XLVII Accidents and Their Cause (Cont.)," The Mastery of the Air, ed. Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904 in The Mastery of the Air Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=KQG4GD5YKYUN47K.

MLA: Claxton, William J. "Chapter XLVII Accidents and Their Cause (Cont.)." The Mastery of the Air, edited by Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904, in The Mastery of the Air, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=KQG4GD5YKYUN47K.

Harvard: Claxton, WJ, 'Chapter XLVII Accidents and Their Cause (Cont.)' in The Mastery of the Air, ed. . cited in , The Mastery of the Air. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=KQG4GD5YKYUN47K.