Pilcher and an assistant with the Bat Mk 3

Pilcher and an assistant with the Bat Mk 3

Percy Pilcher

1867 – 1899

Percy Pilcher

Percy Sinclair Pilcher (1867-1899), engineer and aviation pioneer whose work predated and informed the success of the Wright brothers

Engineering Achievements

Pilcher successfully carried on the European quest for heavier than air flight in the wake of the death of the German pioneer Lilienthal. He and his sister Ella began experimenting with model gliders in 1891. These models led to the design and construction of his first full size aircraft, the "Bat", in which he attempted to fly at Cardross, near Helensburgh early in 1895. In the Bat Mark 2, he flew successfully at Cardross during the summer of 1895 becoming the first person to make repeated heavier than air flights in the United Kingdom. Pilcher thus demonstrated that man could fly on a reliable basis.

He went on to design and build three other gliders, "Beetle", "Gull" and "Hawk". Pilcher also formed, with Walter Wilson, a company to design and build internal combustion engines, one of which was to power his triplane. Due to demonstrate this aircraft at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire in late Sep 1899, the engine failed a week or so before, so he chose to demonstrate the Hawk glider instead. During this flight, the tail collapsed and Pilcher was fatally injured. He died on 2nd October 1899, the first Briton to lose his life in the pursuit of flight.

His Life

  1. 1867 Born 16th January in Bath, to a Scottish mother
  2. 1880 Age: 13 Cadet Royal Navy
  3. 1887 Age: 20 Resigned his commission
  4. 1887 Age: 20 Became an apprentice in the engineering department of Randolph Elder & Co, Govan
  5. 1889 Age: 22 Draughtsman Cairns and Co
  6. 1890 Age: 23 Joined Southampton Naval Works under John Biles
  7. 1891 Age: 24 Moved to University of Glasgow as an assistant to the now Professor John Biles
  8. 1895 Age: 28 Built and attempted to fly his Bat glider
  9. 1895 Age: 28 In the modified Bat Mk 2 and Bat Mk 3 achieved repeated flights at Cardross, near Helensburgh
  10. 1895 Age: 28 Built and flew other gliders at Cardross
  11. 1899 Age: 32 Fatally injured in the Hawk on 30th September at Stanford Hall.
  12. 1899 Age: 32 Died on 2nd October before he could try his powered triplane

His Legacy

Percy Pilcher possessed the desire to fly and was convinced that human beings would, some day, do so. He was prepared to take the consequences whatever they might be in pursuit of this aim. He was far in advance of those at the time who only dreamt of flight for he successfully converted the romantic vision into practical reality. His flights during the summer of 1895 near the River Clyde at Cardross inaugurated our conquest of the air. Pilcher inspired the Wright brothers and others to take up the challenge and demonstrated to them, almost by default, the need to devise a means of three axis control - the key to powered flight - other than by weight shift. At his death he had built a powered aircraft which, when replicated in 2003, albeit with some safety modifications, showed him to have been on the right lines. He was an important pioneer in the development of aviation.

More information

From Pilcher to the Planets D Cameron, R Galbraith and D Thomson. University of Glasgow, 2003.
Another Icarus, Percy Pilcher and the Quest for Flight P Jarrett, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.
Percy Pilcher's Flying Machine Transcript of BBC2's Horizon programme, first broadcast 11th December 2003.
The original Pilcher Hawk is in storage at East Fortune Museum of Flight, National Museums Scotland.
A model of The Bat glider is displayed in the Riverside Museum, Glasgow.
A model of The Gull glider is displayed in the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow.
A replica of The Hawk glider is displayed in the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, Cambridgeshire.
A replica of The Hawk glider is displayed in the former stable block of Stanford Hall, Leicestershire.
Replicas of the Bat gliderand the Pilcher Triplane are on display at Shuttleworth Collection, Bedfordshire.
There is a monument to Percy Pilcher in the field where he died near Stanford Hall, Leicestershire.
There is a Percy Pilcher Monument near Eynsford, Kent.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

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