While you probably know Alexander Graham Bell from his famed invention of the telephone, did you know that Bell also led one of the first aviation teams in history? So move over, Wright Brothers—this is the story of Alexander Graham Bell aviation pioneer and distinguished aerial leader.
Alexander Graham Bell Aviation Overview
Despite the success he garnered from his groundbreaking invention of the telephone, Alec remained devoted to spending time satiating his eclectic curiosities and contributing countless epic inventions. In addition to his research and accomplishments in telecommunications, Alexander Graham Bell was also fascinated by the possibility of achieving human flight.
Bell’s aviation career spanned three decades and included over 1,200 experiments, mostly on his estate at Beinn Bhreagh in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. His aviation experiments were fruitful and produced innovative flight technologies that continue to inform how we design aircraft today.
When you consider the qualities of our planet’s most successful aviation pioneers, you can see why Alec found such profound success in his aviation pursuits. Early aviation researchers had first to be sharply intellectual—it’s no small feat to outsmart the power of gravity.
The earliest aviators also had to be fiercely determined, as many naysayers were staunchly opposed to the possibility that humans could ever manage to achieve sustained flight. Some of Bell’s peers even believed that aviation was such an outlandish concept that it would ruin one’s scientific reputation to attempt it.
And finally, aviation researchers needed courage in the face of danger, considering the mortal threats that came along with pioneering sustained flight. Alexander Graham Bell embodied each of these necessary traits and more, leading him to devote countless hours to its pursuit.
The Tetrahedral Kite
Between 1898 and 1910, Bell focused on the tetrahedral kite, one he developed by modifying Hargrave’s box kites that were popular at the time. He was aware of the risks associated with flying and believed kites were the safest way to conduct his earliest studies. The tetrahedral kite was an early ancestor of the modern-day hang glider. It consisted of interlocking wooden or metal rods forming a pyramid shape to make it sturdy and large enough to carry a man and a motor.
Alec’s most immense contribution to advancing the design of the tetrahedral kite was his introduction of diagonal cross bracing, which increased the kite’s strength and stability. This design is still used in modern-day hang gliders, improving the craft’s ability to withstand windy conditions.
The Aerial Experiment Association
After years of tinkering with the tetrahedral kite, Bell decided it was time to take his research to the next level by forming the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) in 1907. Financed by Bell’s entrepreneurial wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, the AEA was a group of like-minded inventors and engineers who shared the Alexander Graham Bell aviation passion.
The AEA was headquartered at Bell’s estate in Nova Scotia, where the team would conduct their experiments. The group was made up of some of the most brilliant minds of the time, including inventor Lt. Thomas Selfridge, who is credited as being the first person to die in a powered aircraft accident (this was unrelated to Bell’s experiments, as Selfridge conducted his own research outside of the AEA).
The same year the AEA formed, they built the largest tetrahedral kite on record and named it the Cygnet (French for “little swan”). It spanned over 40 feet, weighed 91 kilos, and successfully flew 168 feet above the water, carrying a human passenger.
The AEA Achieves Powered Flight
Armed with a team of exceptional researchers, Bell was confident they could make powered flight a reality. The group produced several iterations of powered aircraft, eventually achieving their goal in 1908.
The Red Wing and the White Wing
The AEA’s first successful experiment came in December 1907 when they flew the Red Wing, their first traditional aircraft. The AEA broke known aviation records when the Red Wing covered 319 feet of distance at 20 feet above the ground. But unfortunately, it crashed 20 seconds after takeoff, damaging the tail beyond repair.
The AEA’s second aircraft, the White Wing, was very similar to the Red Wing in design. To circumnavigate the Wright Brothers’ patent on wing warping, Bell invented the aileron for White Wing, a groundbreaking moment in aviation history. It also included a wheeled undercarriage and managed to take off and land perfectly before an inexperienced pilot crashed it.
The June Bug
The June Bug was a canard biplane, meaning its main elevator surfaces were located at the front of the craft rather than the back. This brilliant design is still used in modern-day aircraft.
On July 4, 1908, the June Bug made headlines and won the Scientific American Trophy in an exhibition after it flew 5,360 feet in under 2 minutes.
The Silver Dart
The AEA’s most significant contribution to aviation history is undoubtedly their successful development of the first powered airplane, which they christened the Silver Dart. Bell’s aviators modeled this aircraft after Samuel Pierpont Langley’s Aerodrome, which featured a gasoline engine that was designed by Alec himself.
On February 23, 1909, after multiple failed attempts, Bell and his team finally succeeded in getting their Silver Dart airborne. The flight lasted only a minute, but it was a momentous achievement as the first controlled-powered flight in Canada. The Silver Dart would go on to make several more flights in the coming weeks, including one that carried Bell himself as the pilot.
Throughout the two years of the AEA’s studies, they introduced the concept of cockpit enclosures, tail rudders, and the aileron, all of which are still used in airplane designs today.
The Canadian Aerodrome Company
After the success of the Silver Dart, Bell and his team decided to commercialize their research by forming the Canadian Aerodrome Company. The company was based in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, and it built several copies of the Silver Dart for sale to the public.
The Canadian government showed interest in the company’s products and placed an order for two aircraft. These planes were to be used for military purposes and were outfitted with machine guns and bomb racks.
Unfortunately, the Canadian Aerodrome Company was not destined to last. The outbreak of World War I resulted in a decrease in demand for civilian aircraft, and the company was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1915.
Despite his company’s demise, Bell continued to work on aviation projects throughout his life. He even designed a hydrofoil to aid in lifting the aircrafts by making use of aircurrents.
Alexander Graham Bell Aviation Lasting Achievements
The Alexander Graham Bell aviation spirit led him to achieve many remarkable things, and he is remembered as one of the pioneers of aviation. His innovations with the AEA helped to pave the way for powered flight, and his contributions are still felt today. So the next time you step onto an airplane, remember that it wouldn’t be possible without Bell’s groundbreaking work.