Excerpted from the forthcoming book, ‘All But Flying is Simulation – The Illustrated History of Flight Simulation’, by former MS&T Editor and Senior Correspondent Walter F. Ullrich.

Already in January 1909, the Wright brothers had started the world’s first flying school at Pau, a community in southwestern France. This was done under a contract which the Wrights had concluded with the French government. On its best days, there were six machines there for training and performance demonstrations. 

Louis Blériot (the first to fly an airplane across the English Channel, 1909) also chose Pau as a training site when it became apparent that the French military would establish their flying school there. 

Around the end of the first decade of the 20th century, there existed more than a dozen notable flying schools in France. The high number of French schools was due to the comparatively large number of aircraft manufacturers in France, each having at least one training facility, normally in vicinity of the manufacturing plant.

The United States had just two: the one of the Wright brothers in Dayton, Ohio and that of Glenn Hammond Curtiss in Hammondsport, New York. 

Just as manifold as the range of aircraft types were the methods to control the machines. In an article in the magazine L’Aérophile in April 1909, Capitaine Ferdinand Ferber, one of the leading experts in French aviation, requested a harmonization of the controls of aircraft. However, it was not about aligning techniques; his concern was on matters of principle – should the control stick be pushed forward, or be pulled towards the pilot for an upward movement of the aeroplane? 



During his early gliding flights, Capitaine Ferber gained vital practical experience, which he also translated into mathematical formulas.                                                     

Credit: Walter F. Ullrich

When Capitaine Ferber had made his first glides, he did not yet know the secrets of angle of attack, or what makes up longitudinal stability. But he was gaining more experience every day. “I was continually either pitched up or tilted towards the ground, and my body movements had to follow quickly on from rudder movements. I had to do this without even thinking," he wrote. 

He had observed that when the plane pitched, his body tended to fall forward, and his arms also pushed forward. “That is the reason why I installed the controls that, by pushing the handlebar, the airplane goes up and vice versa,” he noted. He dubbed it the ‘Pendulum Principle’, with his body acting as the pendulum and his arms as the elastic link. With the permanent instability of the first flying machines, this solution was obvious. The Wright Brothers had also used this method in their gliding flights up until 1902.

In fact, under the influence of Capitaine Ferber, airplanes had been built that were controlled by his preferred pendulum principle; for example, the first Antoinettes, as well as the elliptical Aeroplan that the aviation pioneer Ernest Archdeacon (founder of the Aéro-Club de France) had designed for Blériot. 

The aircraft builder Gabriel Voisin, who had learned flying from Ferber, was willing to incorporate the pendulum principle into a new aircraft developed for flying competitions; however, his brother Charles, co-owner of the company, refused it, saying: "If I want to rear a horse, I pull on the reins; so, if I want to make an airplane climb, I have to pull on the handlebars in a similar way.” 

The landmark decision came in 1907, when Ferber, Charles Voisin's scientific and technical advisor, failed to appear at the factory for a month. Until his untimely death, on 22 September 1909, at a flight meeting in Boulogne, Ferber struggled with his fate of not being on site at the decisive moment to defend his preferred pendulum method. 

Who knows, perhaps Ferber, who after all was the founder of France's influential National Air League, might have prevailed. So, in the end, Ferber's one-month sabbatical meant that the principle of horse reins finally prevailed when it came to piloting the plane. 



In the Curtiss biplane, the pilot (in this case Lt. Theodore G. "Spuds" Ellyson, the US Navy’s first aviator) controls the roll motion by moving a frame that is placed around his shoulders.   

Credit: San Diego Air and Space Museum/Public Domain


In terms of technology, around 1910, standardised flight control systems were nowhere near sight. 

The Wright Brothers had installed into the European version of their Flyer three control sticks, one for each type of motion.

The Curtiss pilot had in front of him a single steering post with a wheel at the upper end. Turning the wheel to the left or right steered the aeroplane to the left or right. Pushing the wheel forward directed the machine downwards; pulling the wheel made it climb. A third lever was attached to a yoke that spanned around the pilot's shoulders. When the airplane tipped to the left, the pilot naturally leaned to the right and the lever was moved to the right by the aviator’s shoulder. This caused the left stabilizing plane to be pulled down, thus initiating a roll of the plane to the right. With his left foot he controlled the accelerator pedal.

In Alberto Santos-Dumont’s ‘Demoiselle,’ the operator also used his back to achieve lateral control. On the Maurice Farman aeroplane, elevation was controlled by a steering wheel in front of the pilot. Blériot XI airplanes were steered much like conventional airplanes today – by a stick in front, the pilot controlled direction by lateral movements and elevation by shifting it back and forth. 

Not only were the controls different, but so were the methods to teach flying, which varied depending on the type of aircraft. The two-seater Wright Flyers, in which both pilots were able to operate the airplane control, appeared to offer the easiest way. The master supervised his student and could interfere whenever necessary. 

However, it was not as easy as it looked. The two-seated Wright Model A had, between the seats, a single control for roll and lateral movements; elevation was controlled by levers located on the outside of the pilot's seats. 

Because of this mirror-inverted arrangement, pilots had to use their hands the other way around when they changed seats. Orville Wright admitted that he, being a right-hander, had sincere coordination problems when he once changed the control position from left to right. He described his trip as “the wildest flight of his life.” Only in 1911, and only after customer complaints, the Wrights installed a genuine double controller in their flyer.



On the Wright Model A, teacher and student shared the centre-mounted lateral control lever.

Credit: Library of Congress/Public Domain

Other aircraft designers quickly started copying the dual-control method by installing not only a second seat but also a second control position into their planes. 

Depending on the design of the aircraft, instructor and student sat either side by side or one behind the other (tandem). 

To reduce head resistance, Curtiss built only a single seat into his airplane. He tried to acquaint his student pilots to the new element by rolling and running exercises. The original aircraft ran with half throttle only; thus, the pilots would become used to the speed and the ‘feel’ of the machine. They learned to steer straight by using the rudder and the front control, and they could practice balance by using the ailerons. However, flight students preferred the dual-control method; and because the military also demanded two-seater, dual-control aircraft, Curtiss built exclusively such aircraft from 1912 on.




With this construction of wood wires and wire ropes, ‘Spuds’ Ellyson tested how seaplanes could take off from a ship. 

Credit: The Curtiss Aviation Book

Curtiss himself never built a flight simulator. As part of the development of a seaplane for the US Navy, however, he designed a launch pad to allow the aircraft to take off from the ship without touching the water. Curtiss commissioned Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, who had been detached from the Navy to support him, to do the job. 

Ellyson erected a 16-foot-high platform on the shore of Keuka Lake, near Hammondsport. From the platform, a 250-foot wire rope was stretched to a pile underwater in the lake. A groove was made along the bottom of the floating body in which the cable fitted loosely, to guide it as it slid down, until it had enough uplift. A trial of this method of launching in September 1911 was entirely successful. “The machine started down the cable gathering headway and we all watched it gracefully rise into the air and fly out over the lake,” Curtiss enthused after the test.