Pilcher and an assistant with the Bat Mk 3

Pilcher and an assistant with the Bat Mk 3

Percy Sinclair Pilcher

1867 – 1899

Percy Sinclair Pilcher

aeronautical engineering pioneer whose work predated and informed the success of the Wright brothers

Engineering Achievements

Percy 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, a hands-on and technically accomplished collaborator, 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. His sister Ella was the first woman to fly a glider in the British Isles. 

With Ella's assistance, Percy went on to design and build three other gliders, "Beetle", "Gull" and "Hawk". Pilcher also formed, with Walter Wilson, a Cambridge engineering graduate, 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, a crankshaft broke a few days 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, England, to Thomas Webb Pilcher and his second wife Sophia Robinson, from Scotland
  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. 1895-96 Age: 28-9 Designed and built the Hawk, equipped with the world's first sprung-wheeled undercarriage
  12. 1896 Age: 29 Patented the world's first practical design for a powered aeroplane developed from gliders which had actually flown
  13. 1897 Age: 30 Formed an engineering firm, Wilson-Pilcher, with Walter Wilson, who had collaborated with Charles Rolls, later a co-founder of Rolls-Royce
  14. 1897 Age: 30 Flying the Hawk, made his record glide of some 750 feet on 20 June
  15. 1899 Age: 32 Walter Wilson designed and tested a 4 hp engine weighing only 40 lb and Wilson and Pilcher built a triplane in which to mount it
  16. 1899 Age: 32 Fatally injured flying the Hawk on 30th September at Stanford Hall, near Market Harborough
  17. 1899 Age: 32 Died on 2nd October before he could test his powered triplane
  18. 1899 Buried in Brompton Cemetery, London

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.

Aiming High. Daily Telegraph, 13 December 2003, Timandra Harkness.

The original Pilcher Hawk is on display in the Atrium of the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The story of the restoration of the Hawk

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 glider and 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.

Percy Pilcher tribute on website of Brompton Cemetery, London

A short tribute film to Ella Pilcher from Lily Ford, Dear Ella (2020)

Picher's Drawing Collection is in the Royal Aeronautical Society Heritage Collections

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

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