James, a student pilot from Wisconsin, writes: “I know that, like many of the names of airplane parts, aileron is French, but what does it mean? And why are there so many French words in aviation, anyway? Wasn’t the airplane invented in the USA?”
First to ailerons. Aileron translates to little wing or small wing. For those of you who are detail-oriented, aile is French for wing, and the suffix on is a common masculine diminutive in the French language. In addition to being an airplane part, the word aileron is also apparently used in French to describe the flight control feathers of birds.
As to why we use a French word for our wing’s control surfaces, many people will tell you it’s because the French invented them, but that’s not true. Sorry. Instead, it was an Englishman, Matthew Piers Watt Boulton. In 1864.
Of course, Boulton’s control surfaces were strictly theoretical. He introduced the concept in a scientific paper, and later patented them. He also called them “vanes,” not ailerons.
But it was the French who first deployed them in real world use in 1871, on an unmanned glider, and later were the first to use them on a powered aircraft — so I guess it’s only fair that they should get to name them.
As to why we have so many French words in aviation, many historians note that at the birth of manned flight, France was the global center of science, technology, and culture; and the French language was one of the premier languages of science.
Or it might simply be the fact that, starting with the Montgolfier brothers, the French went absolutely nuts over anything that flew, and stayed aviation batty at least up until World War I, dominating the scene like no one else.
Meanwhile, this same widespread passion for the air didn’t seem to exist over here in America, where most people didn’t take airplanes seriously.
Well, other than a couple of reclusive bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio.
So while it’s true that the Wrights were first out of the gate, the French weren’t far behind on their own. And while the French widely shared their discoveries in the spirit of their culture at the time, the Wrights — who had perfected the airplane to a much higher degree — were secretive, highly focused in that most American of ways, on patents and profits.
Meanwhile, France stayed on the cutting edge throughout the formative years of the airplane. All things airplane featured prominently in both the popular and the scientific press. France was the first country to issue pilot’s licenses for airplanes. It held the first major international air show in 1908. It was attended by a whopping 100,000 people. The show, called the Paris Air Show, is still alive and well, 111 years later.
France was also host to the world’s first international air race, giving birth to a sport that would grow to do more to advance aviation technology than anything other than war. The first race was in Reims. Half a million people came to watch, and an American — Glenn Curtiss — won first place.
The Wrights didn’t attend.
Maybe if they had engaged with the rest of the aviation world at the outset, we’d have more English words in our aviation vocabulary, but better for us that they didn’t. French words sound sexier and literal descriptions in English can be clunky.
Can you imagine your instructor teaching slips? “Right little wing and left floor pedal! More little wing, more little wing!”
Speaking of the French, next time on Questions from the Cockpit we’ll look at another aerial tradition with French roots, and we’re talking about more than a French kiss, here…
Do you have a question you’d like to ask William? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.