My column a few weeks ago about the village of Brompton by Sawdon being the "birthplace of aviation" drew some interesting and informative feedback from readers.

If you recall, the village is the birthplace of aeronautical pioneer, Sir George Cayley (1773-1857). Cayley is credited with being the first to truly understand the scientific principles of winged "heavier than air" flight. In 1799 he had the idea for a fixed-wing flying machine, but died before he could come up with a suitably light engine to carry humans on a sustained flight.

But it was Cayley’s theories that contributed to the famous Wright brothers’ success, which they acknowledged when they achieved the first powered flight carrying a human on December 17, 1903. Orville Wright piloted the "Wright Flyer" biplane that he and his brother Wilbur had been developing for four years.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Brompton by Sawdon near Scarborough claims to be the \'Birthplace of Aviation\'

Reader Peter Leek pointed out that Brompton Hall School, a grand building in the centre of the village, was Sir George Cayley’s home. “It is stunning,” he says. “The small octagonal building inside the school grounds, which you can see from the main road, was his workshop. It contains many of his ideas and models… He was a true pioneer in the field of flight and aeronautics.”

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Peter goes on: “The plaque on the wall outside says: ‘Scientific Aeronautical Experiment was pioneered from this building. Here the aeroplane was defined for the first time. Circa 1799-1855’. How this is not part of our rich history of explorers, builders and engineers is a mystery to me.”

I quite agree, as does Alan Poxon, who points out that although the Wrights made the first powered flight, Cayley was the first to put a human in a flying machine. “His manned glider flew over Brompton Dale 50 years before the Wright brothers.”

And Garry Mills mentions this too: “The first powered flight was the Wrights, but Cayley had the first human flight. Bit remiss not to include this in the article. From what I've read, it's believed he worked out the principles from watching seagulls in Scarborough.”

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Until Cayley came along, most attempts at creating flying machines involved huge flapping wings. But Cayley had spent many hours since childhood studying birds and noticed how seagulls, rather than simply flapping, subtly changed the angle and shape of their wings to remain airborne. It was these observations that inspired him to develop the fixed-wing glider that was launched across Brompton Dale.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Sir George Cayley

Known as "Cayley’s Governable Parachute", it had a huge wood-framed canvas canopy with a kite-like tail and, from above, the aircraft resembled a giant stingray. A wooden boat-shaped basket was suspended beneath, complete with a set of oars that the the pilot would use to "row" across the sky. The silhouette of this machine is what you see on the village sign as you enter Brompton. His first attempt came in 1849, using a prototype of the Governable Parachute, when Cayley (who was not reckless enough to attempt to fly his own inventions) hoisted the ten-year-old son of one of his servants aboard his new machine, and it flew for several yards.

A few years later, in 1853, having made a number of modifications, Cayley enlisted the help of several local youths who pulled the Governable Parachute down a hill while his unwilling coachman, 79-year-old John Appleby, sat anxiously at the helm. The craft launched into the air and flew for 900 yards across Brompton Dale, the first ever manned fixed-wing, "heavier than air" flight.

Once back on terra firma, the distressed coachman immediately resigned, declaring, “I was hired to drive, not fly!”

Cayley, who was already 80-years-old at the time, continued in his quest to create a powered flying machine capable of carrying a human, but died just four years later before he could make his vision a reality. It would be another 46 years before the Wright Brothers accomplished that feat.

Cayley wasn’t just interested in aviation. He was also responsible for inventing a self-righting lifeboat, an artificial hand for amputees, tensioned-spoked wheels for bikes and ferris wheels, caterpillar wheels for heavy vehicles, and various safety features of the railway system including brakes, signals and the cowcatcher.

If you want to see what Cayley’s Governable Parachute actually looked like, a life-size replica is on display at the Yorkshire Air Museum near York.

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