Re-enacting world's first manned flight

He plans to celebrate the 150th year of world's first manned flight on Saturday by piloting a replica of the glider that set the record.

| Updated on: Jul 12 2003, 15:53 IST

Richard Branson plans to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the world's first manned flight on Saturday by piloting a replica of the glider that set the record. The chief executive officer of Virgin Atlantic Airways said one of his goals will be to stop America's Wright brothers from upstaging the man he calls the world's first aviation pioneer, Sir George Cayley of England, who in 1853 sent his reluctant coachman flying in a glider.

'Most people assume that the Americans Wilbur and Orville Wright were responsible for the first manned flight on 17th December 1903, but the real birth of modern aviation was achieved by a British pioneer 50 years previously,' Branson said on Friday. 'The Wright brothers acknowledged that they'd based their aircraft on Cayley's design and had used the development of a lightweight engine, not available in Cayley's day, to achieve their success,' he said.

Actually, the record books don't seem to portray the achievements of Cayley and the Wright brothers as competing victories. Cayley is credited with arranging the world's first manned glider flight. The Wright brothers are celebrated for making the first powered flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on Dec. 17, 1903. On Friday, the July 4 national holiday in the United States, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, helped the Wright brothers' hometown, Dayton, Ohio, kick off a long celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the Wrights' achievement.

Cayley, a baronet who lived from 1773 to 1857, is considered the English pioneer of aerial navigation and the founder of the science of aerodynamics. He built the first successful man-carrying glider. In 1853, aeronautical research and test flights by the so-called 'father of aviation' culminated with a full-size glider, the Cayley Flyer, that carried the inventor's coachman on the first manned glider flight from the top of a dale in Brompton, northeast England.

Cayley pushed his hapless servant onto the world stage because the inventor was 80 years old at the time. The terrified coachman is believed to have hoped the glider wouldn't take off. Minutes later, after the Cayley Flyer crash-landed, he said: 'Please Sir George, I wish to give notice. I was hired to drive and not to fly.'

During his life, Cayley is credited with establishing the basic configuration of the modern airplane, complete with fixed wings, fuselage, and a tail unit with elevators and rudder. He also invented the light-tension wheel - a forerunner of the bicycle wheel - and the hot-air engine.

In addition, his research delved into acoustics, railway equipment, lifeboats, ballistics, optics and electricity. Branson, who will be joined in Saturday's ceremony in Brompton by officials from Britain's Royal Aeronautical Society, will attempt to fly a full-working replica of the Cayley Flyer.

'I'm as unqualified as the coachman - having never flown a plane or glider before - so history really will be repeated when I get behind the controls tomorrow,' Branson said.

One goal, he said, is to remind the world of the significant role that Britain and Cayley played in aviation's development. But Branson is no stranger to daredevil work. The tycoon is an expert at getting attention for himself and his company and has won extensive publicity with his ballooning. He was the first to cross both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by balloon and made several attempts to be the first balloonist to circumnavigate the world without stopping.

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First Published Date: 05 Jul, 19:05 IST