Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


THE EARLIEST aeroplanes were less than open-cockpit, for they had no cockpits at all. Orville or Wilbur Wright initially lay prone on a padded cradle on the bottom wing of their Flyer biplane, the pilot more or less balancing the engine immediately to his right.

Subsequent Wright designs had rudimentary upright seating on the wing for the pilot and even a daring passenger.


1903 Wright Flyer. Image from Microsoft Flight Simulator.

The pilot’s hips were held in a wooden fixture, the lateral movement of which coordinated the wing warp and rudder providing lateral and yaw control. Forward-mounted elevators controlling pitch were operated by a left-hand lever. The engine had no throttle; it was either on, producing 12-16 hp, or off via disconnection of the magneto ignition.


The pilot’s view, Act 1, Scene 1, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, December 17, 1903. The Wright Flyer.

Instrumentation of the Flyer was minimal: a Richard anemometer (sending unit and wind gauge) and a stopwatch. There was a Veedor revolution counter mounted at the base of the engine, out of the pilot’s line of vision.

All three instruments were started when the Flyer left its launch rail and stopped when the craft touched down. Knowing flight distance and ambient wind conditions, the Wrights could use the instruments’ data to calculate the craft’s air speed, ground speed and engine rpm.

An historic event captured in Microsoft Flight Simulator. My compliments to its anonymous and artful filmmaker.

Louis Blériot’s 1909 craft, a tractor-layout monoplane, was more advanced than the pusher-layout biplane Wright Flyer. Also, its pilot resided in something of a cockpit, albeit one that was decidedly open.


1909 Blériot Type XI. Image of my model in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

The Blériot’s wing warp and elevator actuation depended on its cockpit’s wood-wheeled cloche moved lateral and fore/aft, respectively. The wheel served only as a grip; it had no steering function. The cloche also contained levers for hand throttle and spark advance. A foot-actuated rudder bar controlled yaw.


The pilot’s view, Act 1, Scene 2, approaching the coast of Dover, July 25, 1909. The Blériot Type XI.

On July 25, 1909, Louis Blériot won the London Daily Mail newspaper’s prize of £1000 for the first flight across the English Channel. (Being a Frenchman, he would have called that body of water La Manche.)

His 37-minute flight was not without adventure. The Type XI carried no compass; Blériot followed ships for part of his journey.

The craft’s sole instrument was an oil pressure gauge. Pilots learned they could guess at engine rpm by observing the needle pulses of this instrument.

The Type XI 3-cylinder Anzani motor was notoriously unreliable. It’s said Blériot’s cross-channel 37 minutes might have set an endurance record for its kind. A storm’s cooling rain water played an important role in his success. See for other Blériot details.


Glenn Curtiss and his Reims Racer, as it appeared at the world’s first air meet, near Reims, France, August 1909. Image of my model in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Like the Wrights before him, Glenn Curtiss also flew unencumbered by a cockpit. His seat was mounted to a wooden A-frame supporting the nose wheel of his Reims Flyer and its aft-mounted V-8.

Unlike the Wrights’, his aircraft had ailerons controlling roll. Like the Wrights, Glenn depended on Body English for actuation; the Reims Racer had a U-shaped shoulder harness built into its seat.


A pilot’s view, Act 1, Scene 3, near Reims, France, August 1909. The Curtiss Reims Racer.

Glenn gripped an oversize wood-rim steering wheel. Its fore/aft motion actuated the front-mounted elevators; turning the wheel operated the rudder. To his left he had a throttle lever that worked in concert with a left foot pedal. His right foot operated a brake shoe on the craft’s nose wheel.

See for more on Glenn Curtiss and of his squabbles with the Wrights.

Interesting times indeed. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014

One comment on “THE PILOT’S VIEW, EPISODE 1

  1. Bill Urban
    May 30, 2014

    Dennis, I’m reminded of a favorite, your Jan. 29, 2013 post “The Art Of Early Flight.” One painting shows some unusual (standing!) arrangements for three passengers. Your caption: “An aerial wedding. The pilot/engine layout suggests this is a Wright. Image from The Legend of the Skies.” Also as memorable, the pastoral setting below.

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