Safe Personal Airplanes

Over the years there have been many innovations that were meant to make airplanes as easy and as safe to fly as cars are to drive. The Guggenheim Safe Airplane Competition (1926-1929) was an early organized attempt to have safe airplanes. Ever since that time, personal airplanes have benefitted from stability and control research that had been directed at larger, heavier airplanes. However, the designers of personal airplanes have not always taken advantage of this body of knowledge.

The prospects for safe personal airplanes is clouded by rapid performance advances, which require the application of advanced stability and control techniques to be safe.

15.1 The Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition

In June 1926, the philanthropist and aviation enthusiast Harry Guggenheim funded a Safe Aircraft Competition with the sum of $150,000 to $200,000. The competition was open to airplane manufacturers in any part of the world. Leading aviation personalities of the day helped draft rules for the competition. They included Majors R. W. Schroeder and R. H. Mayo, Professor Alexander Klemin, Lieutenants E. E. Aldrin and James H. Doolittle, airplane designers Anthony H. G. Fokker and G. M. Bellanca, veteran builders and flyers J. D. Hill and Charles Day, and Edward P. Warner, who was then Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Aeronautics.

An extensive set of demonstrations was agreed upon, the main thrust of which was the ability to land in a confined space. Twenty-seven entries came in: five from Great Britain, one from Italy, and the balance from the United States. In the end, 15 airplanes showed up at Mitchell Field, New York, for testing, and 10 were actually demonstrated. The tests and demonstrations took place in 1929.

The competition came down to two biplanes, one built by Handley Page, the other the Curtiss Tanager, designed by a team headed by Dr. Theodore P. Wright. The Tanager had full-span flaps and leading-edge slats, with lateral control provided by isolated or floating ailerons. The leading-edge slats were automatically operated, opening by air loads at a high angle of attack (Figure 15.1). The Handley Page machine, also equipped with flaps and automatic leading-edge slats, was a close second; but the Tanager won with a minimum gliding speed of 37 miles per hour, excellent lateral control, and a total distance from a 35-foot obstacle to a full stop of less than 300 feet.

The Tanager was eventually destroyed in a fire caused by leaking fuel. The thinking and developments initiated by the 1926-1929 Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition had results that went far beyond those years. The most obvious benefit was the demonstration of full-span flaps and automatic slats and the longitudinal and lateral control power required for their use.

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