Percy Pilcher (1867-1899)
Aircraft designer who nearly flew a powered plane before the Wright brothers.
Percy Pilcher may have beaten the Wright brothers to inventing and flying the first aeroplane – if he hadn’t died trying.
Percy was a pioneer of unpowered flight. After serving in the Royal Navy and working as a shipbuilding apprentice, he began building a series of successful hang-gliders in Glasgow in the 1890s. He then set his sights on creating a powered plane.
Percy put himself into serious debt inventing and building his ‘tri-plane’, fitted with an oil engine. He needed to find sponsors quickly so, in 1889, he arranged to demonstrate the plane to potential investors at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. The display was just about to begin when, to his intense frustration, he found that the new plane’s engine had broken down. Not wanting to disappoint the sponsors, he decided to fly his latest hang-glider, Hawk, instead.
It was a stormy day, so Percy waited for a lull in the weather before taking off in Hawk. He was caught by a gust of wind, which caused the glider’s tail to snap and it crashed. Percy died of his injuries two days later, and his powered tri-plane was never tested in public.