First flight

Seven frames from an otherwise lost film of British aviator Percy Pilcher, flying his ‘Hawk’ glider on 20 June 1897

We were discussing ‘first’ films the other day, and warning of the dangers of lapsing into ‘firstism’ when it comes to films. Too often asking “what was the first such-and-such film?” “what was the first film to …?” is the wrong question to ask, because it presupposes that film forms and subjects that we understand now were understood in the same way when films were being created for the first time. Moreover, no sooner do you announce that such and such a film was the first whatever then someone is bound to pop up and tell you of one that is earlier.

But the heck, it’s still a fun game to play. So here we present to you what may be the first film of human flight. The film – or rather the mere seven frames of the film that survive reproduced in the journal Nature from 12 August 1897 – shows the pioneering British aviator Percy Pilcher (1866-1899) taking off from a hillside, probably outside Eynsford, for 20 June 1897. The glider was one of his own construction, named ‘The Hawk’, and you can just make out that it is being towed as the aviator takes to the air. I have animated the seven frames and repeated them several times, since the action naturally lasts for less than a second. It is not known how long the original film was (it seems to have been made as a scientific record, not as a commercial release).

Aviation enthusiast and photographer William J.S. Lockyer (who may have taken the film) wrote in Nature about the particular point of the action that we see in these seven frames.

The start was made at a given signal, the line being pulled by three boys, and Mr. Pilcher gradually left the ground, and soarred gracefully into the air, attaining a maximum height of about 70 feet. After covering a distance of about 180 yards the line suddenly parted, a knot having slipped. The only apparent difference this made was that the operator began now to slowly descend, his motion in the horizontal direction being somewhat reduced. A safe and graceful landing was made at a distance of 250 yards from the starting-point. the photographs illustrate that part of the flight previous to the attainment of the greatest height.

The film records Pilcher’s first public demonstration of one of his gliders, with a party of scientists having been present to witness the occasion. On the same day Pilcher’s cousin Dorothy also flew the Hawk, in what is believed to be the first instance of a woman operating a heavier-than-air aircraft. It is said that she was being filmed as well when she crashed into the cinematograph operator. I do hope this is true and not just a good story.

Percy Pilcher would die in a crash flying the same glider two years later, aged just 32. Poignantly, Lockyer’s account tells us not only that “in these attempts it must not be forgotten that there is always a certain amount of danger” but adds the following hint of what might have been:

Mr. Pilcher now proposes to employ, as soon as possible, a small and light engine indicating about four hourse-power, this being considerably more than sufficient for flights of moderate length … With this improvement it is hoped that further distances will be covered, and a nearer approximation to a flying machine will be attained.

A true flying machine to make real the dream of powered flight would finally be achieved by the Wright brothers in 1903. We don’t know if Pilcher could ever have put his dreams into reality, but it is likely that he was the first human to be shown in flight on film. The Lumières filmed a balloonist taking off the following year in 1898 (Départ d’une montgolfière, 998) and a view of the ground below filmed from that balloon – probably the first example of aerial cinematography (Panorama pris d’un ballon captif, cat. no. 997).

The view from the air provided by Panorama pris d’un ballon (1898), from Die Kunst zu Fliegen in Film und Fotografie (Düsseldorf: NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft, 2004)

Balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont was filmed by a Lumière operator on 19 September 1900 precariously perched beneath his dirigible, and in 1901 was filmed by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company in Santos Dumont’s Aerial Flight Around the Eiffel Tower and Santos Dumont Explaining his Air Ship to the Hon. C.S. Rolls The Lumière films survive; the Biograph film of Dumont in flight does not. However the film of Dumont with Rolls was recently discovered in São Paulo as a Mutoscope reel and made the subject of a thoroughly researched documentary film, Santos Dumont’s Mutoscope (2010), directed by Brazilian scholar Carlos Adriano. Rolls was a pioneering aviator himself, and the first Briton to be killed in an airplane crash, in 1910. He was also the Rolls in Rolls-Royce.

Alberto Santos-Dumont (left) and C.S. Rolls in 1901, filmed by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company and preserved as a Mutoscope reel

Santos-Dumont was also the first person to be filmed flying an aeroplane. A fleeting film exists, taken by I know not whom on 23 October 1906, showing his 14-bis aircraft undertaking the brief but first successful flight by a fixed-wing powered aircraft in Europe. The Wright brothers’ Flyer was not filmed until it was brought to Europe in August 1908 (Wilbur made the trip with Orville following in January 1909), when the aeroplane was filmed near Le Mans. Motion pictures of the Wright Flyer in Europe greatly helped spread the word that powered flight had been achieved.

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s brief flight in the 14-bis outside Paris on 23 October 1906

Orville and Wilbur Wright stayed in France until April 1909, when they moved for a short time to Italy. There another first was achieved, though there has perhaps been no more hotly contested a first in aviation filming than the first person to film from the air. I’ve come across so many competing claims. The film below was taken in Italy from Wilbur Wright’s aircraft, on 24 April 1909 by the Italian film company Società Italiana Pineschi (ignore the erroneous 1907 date given for the clip on YouTube). It is fairly certain that it is the first film taken from an airplane (if not – as already demonstrated – the first film taken from the air).

The view from Wilbur Wright’s Flyer, 24 April 1909

If you want a rudimentary, pseudo-philosophical overview of the relationship between early film and early flight (including pre-cinema and pre-flight), there’s my essay, ‘Taking to the Air‘, on my personal website. If you are interested in investigating the links between aviation and film once the plans were up in the air and the cinematograph was able to record them more fully, it’s well worth browsing through the archives of Flight magazine, covered fully in an earlier Bioscope post. And if I’ve got my various ‘firsts’ wrong – please tell me. It’s all part of the game.