The flying bicycle

Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Before they pioneered the airplane, inventors such as Orville and Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss had another technical fascination: Bicycles.

Both the Wrights and Curtiss serviced, designed and raced this new technological triumph at the end of the 19th Century. While they were all businessmen and inventors who initially manufactured and sold bicycles, there is no evidence that they considered combining wings with their bicycles to create the aerocycle.

The idea of the flying bicycle caught the attention of the popular press, as witnessed by this fanciful depiction of an aerial bicycle that appeared in an issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. (Source: Popular Mechanics 1910)

When the first public competition for a motorless flying machine was announced in 1912 in France, “aviette ” was the name bestowed on these flying bicycles.

There are records of attempts at the flying bicycle as far back as 1904 when an inventor by the name of Schumtz tried to cycle aloft in his pedal-powered plane. The first to succeed in leaving the ground with a winged bicycle was the French bicycle racer Lavelade, who managed to skim the air for a distance of 44 inches at a height of 8 inches at a trial in 1912. However, he used a takeoff ramp to get airborne.

PEUGEOT PRIZE

In February 1912 a prize for a flight by human energy alone was offered by Robert Peugeot, who ran the racing program for the Peugeot Co. The prize of 10,000 francs was to be awarded to the first person who, on a bicycle transformed into a flying apparatus, succeeded in flying 10 meters without the aid of a motor.

This was the first competition for manned-powered aircraft and apparently the Peugeot Co. felt that the flying craze had tremendous advertising potential. Flying magazine did not see the potential when it commented in its July 1912 issue: “Why it should have suddenly been deemed easy to fly without a motor when it is precisely the motor which made flight possible?”

There was quite an interest in the prize with 198 entries for the first trials scheduled for June 2, 1912. Apparently competitors thought that winning would be easy, but on the day of the event, only 23 showed up and, notwithstanding many attempts, not one got off the ground. The performance of the competitors was likened to “the antics of a lot of cowboys trying to ride bucking broncos.”

Paul Tissandier, a French pilot and a student of Wilbur Wright, didn’t think the aviette would ever prove successful as an airplane but thought: “As experiments involve neither personal risk nor great expense, some of our young inventors might find considerable amusement in attempting to work out the problem.”

Seeing that the competition was a non-starter, Peugeot was induced to offer a prize for another event. This time the company offered 1,000 francs to fly over two cords 1 meter apart and 10 centimeters above the ground. It was known as the Decimeter Prize. On the 4th of July a famous bicycle racer, Gabriel Poulain, called together the official observers, and with the use of his racing bicycle fitted with wings, he more than satisfied the conditions for the prize. On the first attempt he succeeded in covering 3.6 meters and 3.3 meters on the second run in the reverse direction.

Gabriel Poulain on his record-setting run, which earned him the Peugeot Prize for human-powered flight on July 9, 1921. (Source: Flugsport, Aug. 17, 1921)

Poulain’s win was touted by the French magazine L’Auto as a predictor of a bright future, with editors forecasting that, “ultra-light aviation will develop alongside large scale aircraft.”

The Peugeot Prize remained unclaimed for the next nine years, and in 1920 the rules were changed to include an additional flight in the opposite direction to compensate for any favoring wind. The other rules from the original 1912 contest still applied: 10,000 francs to the first person who could traverse 10 meters across the ground and 1 meter in the air without the aid of a motor.

On July 9, 1921, Poulain again tried to win the prize he first attempted to win in 1912. The new aviette was built by the Nieuport aircraft factory at Longchamps racecourse at the western edge of Paris.

A drawing of the Poulain aviette, which was built by the Nieuport company. The dotted lines show the 6° that launched him into the air. (Source: Flying May 1920)

It was decided to set the attempt in the early predawn hours to take advantage of the calmer and cooler air, so a crowd of about 100 spectators joined the judges at 3:45 a.m. for Poulain’s trials. He made a number of attempts before finally succeeding shortly after 6 a.m. He had flights of 10.54 and 11.46 meters at a height of 1.5 meters.

In winning the prize Poulain gained international fame, even gaining front page coverage in the New York Times.

To take off, Poulain worked up to a speed of 45 kilometers an hour on the ground. According to his own estimate, the muscular force required for flight was equal to three horsepower. The total weight of the machine, with the wings, was 17 kilograms, or about 37 pounds, and the cyclist weighed 75 kilograms, or about 165 pounds.

The Nieuport-built aviette had a biplane configuration with a small rear wing attached to the rear wheel behind the bicycle saddle, while the large upper wing was supported above the head of the rider by struts from the frame. A secret to the success of the flight may have been the provision that when top speed was reached, the angle of attack of the wings was moved quickly to 6° for lift.

After the win Poulain wrote profusely on his record attempt and the development of aviation, a future in which the aviette would have a great role. The editor of the American magazine Ace thought the aviette was creating quite an air of whimsy and said he would like to see it become a craze in the United States for the publicity it would provide aviation.

However, there was not a future for the aviette. The development of light-weight low-horsepower aircraft engines in the 1920s and the start of the Lympne light plane competition in England put an end to human-powered flight trials until the Kremer Prize in 1959. This competition would give rise to several successful human-powered aircraft, including the McCready Gossamer Albatross on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Dennis can be reached at dennis@generalaviationnews.com.

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