VIII. AMERICAN GLIDING EXPERIMENTS
While Pilcher was carrying on Lilienthal's work in England, the great German had also a follower in America; one Octave Chanute, who, in one of the statements which he has left on the subject of his experiments acknowledges forty years' interest in the problem of flight, did more to develop the glider in America than - with the possible exception of Montgomery - any other man. Chanute had all the practicality of an American; he began his work, so far as actual gliding was concerned, with a full-sized glider of the Lilienthal type, just before Lilienthal was killed. In a rather rare monograph, entitled Experiments in Flying, Chanute states that he found the Lilienthal glider hazardous and decided to test the value of an idea of his own; in this he followed the same general method, but reversed the principle upon which Lilienthal had depended for maintaining his equilibrium in the air. Lilienthal had shifted the weight of his body, under immovable wings, as fast and as far as the sustaining pressure varied under his surfaces; this shifting was mainly done by moving the feet, as the actions required were small except when alighting. Chanute's idea was to have the operator remain seated in the machine in the air, and to intervene only to steer or to alight; moving mechanism was provided to adjust the wings automatically in order to restore balance when necessary.
Chanute realised that experiments with models were of little use; in order to be fully instructive, these experiments should be made with a full-sized machine which carried its operator, for models seldom fly twice alike in the open air, and no relation can be gained from them of the divergent air currents which they have experienced. Chanute's idea was that any flying machine which might be constructed must be able to operate in a wind; hence the necessity for an operator to report upon what occurred in flight, and to acquire practical experience of the work of the human factor in imitation of bird flight. From this point of view he conducted his own experiments; it must be noted that he was over sixty years of age when he began, and, being no longer sufficiently young and active to perform any but short and insignificant glides, the courage of the man becomes all the more noteworthy; he set to work to evolve the state required by the problem of stability, and without any expectation of advancing to the construction of a flying machine which might be of commercial value. His main idea was the testing of devices to secure equilibrium; for this purpose he employed assistants to carry out the practical work, where he himself was unable to supply the necessary physical energy.
Together with his assistants he found a suitable place for experiments among the sandhills on the shore of Lake Michigan, about thirty miles eastward from Chicago. Here a hill about ninety-five feet high was selected as a point from which Chanute's gliders could set off; in practice, it was found that the best observation was to be obtained from short glides at low speed, and, consequently, a hill which was only sixty-one feet above the shore of the lake was employed for the experimental work done by the party.
In the years 1896 and 1897, with parties of from four to six persons, five full-sized gliders were tried out, and from these two distinct types were evolved: of these one was a machine consisting of five tiers of wings and a steering tail, and the other was of the biplane type; Chanute believed these to be safer than any other machine previously evolved, solving, as he states in his monograph, the problem of inherent equilibrium as fully as this could be done. Unfortunately, very few photographs were taken of the work in the first year, but one view of a multiple wing-glider survives, showing the machine in flight. In 1897 a series of photographs was taken exhibiting the consecutive phases of a single flight; this series of photographs represents the experience gained in a total of about one thousand glides, but the point of view was varied so as to exhibit the consecutive phases of one single flight.
The experience gained is best told in Chanute's own words. 'The first thing,' he says, 'which we discovered practically was that the wind flowing up a hill-side is not a steadily-flowing current like that of a river. It comes as a rolling mass, full of tumultuous whirls and eddies, like those issuing from a chimney; and they strike the apparatus with constantly varying force and direction, sometimes withdrawing support when most needed. It has long been known, through instrumental observations, that the wind is constantly changing in force and direction; but it needed the experience of an operator afloat on a gliding machine to realise that this all proceeded from cyclonic action; so that more was learned in this respect in a week than had previously been acquired by several years of experiments with models. There was a pair of eagles, living in the top of a dead tree about two miles from our tent, that came almost daily to show us how such wind effects are overcome and utilised. The birds swept in circles overhead on pulseless wings, and rose high up in the air. Occasionally there was a side-rocking motion, as of a ship rolling at sea, and then the birds rocked back to an even keel; but although we thought the action was clearly automatic, and were willing to learn, our teachers were too far off to show us just how it was done, and we had to experiment for ourselves.'