HC Deb 29 June 1960 vol 625 cc1515-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

Two or three months ago I had the opportunity of asking the Minister of Civil Aviation whether in some way he could support the efforts now being made to do something about man-powered flying. As far as I remember, the answer was that he had considerable sympathy for the subject but he did not feel that this was the time to pay out Government money towards it. I am fully aware that there are considerable financial difficulties these days, but a great deal of money is being spent on subjects connected with defence and on the kind of thing that I want to speak about tonight.

For example, man-powered flying as we know it is being developed at the moment in other countries, such as Russia. We find that quite a lot is going on. They are secretive about it, but I believe that quite a lot is being done, mainly on the lines of flying with wings. In the United States the Rockefeller Foundation has helped considerably. There are two or three machines in the process of being tested, largely thanks to this Foundation. Efforts are also being made in France and, although I have no definite information about them, I believe that they are being helped considerably by the French Government. I will come back in a moment to what is being done in the private sphere in this country.

It is interesting to recall that at the time of Ivan the Terrible a poor man was sentenced to death in Russia because he decided to try to fly into the air. That great Russian potentate said that it was not natural that one should try to get off the earth. I do not know whether Khrushchev feels the same today, but I rather gather that he does not.

In trying to study this and all other flying problems we have concentrated more or less on fast flying. We have jet aircraft, and everything is being done for fast flying. Little is being done about a possible discovery of greater aids towards slow flying and the possibilities of easier and safer landing through slow flying. If we were to study the problem of man powered flying, in which one would probably go no faster than about 30 m.p.h., we might well be able, so I am told by those who are studying the problem, to discover new means which would be a considerable help in the future in bringing down aircraft slowly and finding new material to help us in slow flying.

There is also a possible security advantage in that one would be most unlikely, flying oneself, with one's own wings or propellers, to go very much higher than 10 to 20 ft. That being so, I understand that one would be well below radar level. This could be immensely useful, offering possibilities of flying from submarines or elsewhere in such a way that radar could not detect us.

Private enterprise is doing all that it can to help. Indeed, private enterprise has been immensely helpful in the past, especially the newspapers. If we think back to the days of Bleriot we recall what was done by the late Lord Northcliffe, and the late Lord Rothermere, and later by the present Lord Rothermere. Hon. Members should look at a list of the prizes which the Daily Mail gave for flying in those days. In 1909 it offered £1,000 for the first Channel flight, which was won by Bleriot, and then another £1,000 for the first circular mile flown, won by Lord Brabazon. In 1910 it offered £10,000 for a London-to-Manchester flight, won by Paulhan, and in 1910, £1,000 for the fastest cross-country aggregate, again won by Paulhan. In 1911 there was another £10,000 for a flight round Britain, won by Baumont. In 1913 there was £1,000 for a water-plane flight round Britain and in 1919, £10,000 for a transatlantic flight, which was won by Alcock and Brown.

In 1930 the sum of £10,000 was given for the solo flight to Australia, won by Amy Johnson, and in 1959 there was a prize of £10,000 for the cross-Channel Bleriot anniversary race. That is what one newspaper has done, and the Daily Express and Lord Beaverbrook helped before the war. They gave considerable backing to a man who tried to fly with wings, but the muscular effort was evidently too much and he broke his arms on two occasions. Finally, the poor man was killed during the war. Backing has also been given to other endeavours of a similar nature. The Times has given backing to such things as the Everest Expedition and the Antarctic Expedition. All these endeavours are helped privately.

So we come to this quite new problem—how we are likely to be able to fly personally. This has sufficiently interested a gentleman called Mr. Kremer, who has been good enough to give £5,000 as a prize to be won. In addition Air Commodore Weir has given another £1,000, and other money, on a much smaller scale, has been raised. This is all in order to win a prize. That has been passed on to the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Royal Aero Club.

The Royal Aeronautical Society has taken this matter sufficiently seriously to have formed a committee which has some extremely prominent names on it—men of the calibre of Mr. Shenstone, the B.E.A. chief engineer; Mr. H. B. Irving, president of the Low-Speed Aerodynamics Research Association; Mr. Robert Graham, Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, the first man to fly a helicopter in this country, who was director of Aircraft Equipment Research and Development, Ministry of Supply, and also Dr. Wilkie. They are four prominent people, who together with the Royal Aero Club have decided upon the rules for this flight for the Kremer competition.

As I have said, the prize is £5,000. I now come to the question of eligibility, and I like the eligibility terms very much. First, the entrant, designer and pilot must be citizens of the United Kingdom or the British Commonwealth and the aircraft must be designed and flown in the British Commonwealth. But the machine must be an heavier-than-air machine and the use of lighter-than-air gases is prohibited. The machine must be powered and controlled by the crew over the entire flight, and no devices for storing energy for lake-off or for use in flight are permitted. No part of the machine must be jettisoned during any part of the flight, including take-off, and the crew should be those persons in the machine during take-off, and flight, and there should be no limit set to their number. No member of the crew is permitted to leave the aircraft at any time during take-off or flight.

Furthermore, one handler or ground crew may assist in stabilising the machine at the wing-tip during take-off. All attempts, which must include the take-off run, must be made over approximately level ground and on a course to be approved by the Royal Aero Club. All attempts shall be in still air which is defined as a wind not exceeding a mean speed of approximately 10 knots, over the period of the flight. The Royal Aero Club is to act as observer and make final judgments.

I notice that nothing can be done without a minimum insurance of £20,000. Some people think that there is a good chance of people breaking their necks in this effort. Be that as it may, there is also considerable criticism that this competition may be far too severe for these first efforts. It is clear, however, that the Royal Aero Club and the Royal Aeronautical Society are taking the matter seriously.

There is no time tonight to go into the detail of the different types that are being thought out and worked out. There is a pedal system, which provides power of a kind derived from a bicycle. That would involve two or more people. There is the ordinary flap system and there is what is called the "flycycle". This, I am interested to see, is being produced by Queen's University in Belfast. I was also interested to see, in an article in Reynolds News, that in the University they have reached the stage where they think that they will, by the end of July, given the money, have this machine ready. It is a 40 m.p.h. two-seater flycycle, and it is being developed under Mr. Nonweiler, senior lecturer in aeronautical engineering. The design is complete and has been subjected to intensive tests. Two local champion cyclists may man the machine. Mr. Nonweiler is impressed with the possibilities and thinks it can work up to speeds of about 30 m.p.h. There will be an 8½ ft. special propeller mounted in the tail to make it airborne. But ho needs money for all this development. He believes that as the design improves the flycycle will not be limited to special musclemen. In fact, there will be a commercial future and, if mass-produced, the cost could be under £300.

These things have now reached the stage where they should be developed, but it all costs money. These are mostly for young people, for enthusiasts, who are not rich, to try to do. At present they can do little more than make back-garden efforts to try and produce them. A prototype of a really good pedal-type of man-powered aircraft would cost anything in the neighbourhood of £8,000 to £10,000.

At the moment, people think we must have, or should have, at least two people working such a machine together, but there is no reason why, according to what is going on in Russia, there should not be single-seaters as well. There is a wonderful future for us. I can well imagine, because of traffic, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and I taking off in order to get here. We would have to get to only just over 10 ft. in the air, just above the buses. For City people, it would be a tremendous thing to be able to get to the City in the mornings and get back home afterwards. These are possibilities.

I can cast my memory back to those early days when aircraft first came over. I am old enough to remember the aircraft of 1910. How mad we thought it all, and how absurd the idea that aircraft could be of use in war time. But all these things have been studied and tried out and people are forming special committee for them.

There is also the medical aspect, which is not uninteresting. We are told that on muscle development, which we mainly see in Olympic Games, we have not to any great extent studied the immense possibilities that can be developed. I am told by doctors that it would not be so difficult. It might be that people might need some kind of steering element that would make it possible for us not only to have stronger arms but also a tremendous chest development.

Thirty miles per hour is just about as fast as one could go because there the question of oxygen comes into it as well. None of these things can be properly developed unless we can do the same thing as is being done both in Russia and France, and to a certain extent in the United States, with regard to efforts by the Government to help.

We do not ask very much of the Government. We ask only if it is possible for them to help out with money to help towards the prototype. We think that that would bring us up to demanding about £12,000. The competition cannot take place unless people are able to provide the machines, but we have many airfields where we could make tests in wind tunnels and so on and where we might be allowed to use them.

That is what the Royal Aero Club would ask. From my constituency point of view, I should like some of the tests to be made at our own Shoreham Airport, so that we could then go gaily along Brighton Front at top speed going from meeting to meeting. No doubt every Member of Parliament would get extra votes by being seen at such a height!

This may be flippant, but on the serious side, there is no doubt that an effort is being made by a few private people to put up the money to make people more enthusiastic and to study in this country what is also being studied abroad. It may be that help will be given to ordinary flying developments from learning about these things. We are being very humble and not asking the Government very much, but we are asking for a little more enthusiasm and encouragement from them.

10.26 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) has chosen a fascinating subject to discuss. The idea of man-powered flight has engaged the attention of man throughout the centuries. My hon. Friend began with Ivan the Terrible, but this subject has a much longer history than that. I think that the credit for the first attempt by man to soar into the heavens is accorded by mythology to Icarus who, despite parental advice, sought to reach the sun with the power of waxed wings. Unfortunately, he descended without them because he got too near to his objective.

From earliest times, the whole project has enjoyed a certain amount of royal patronage. I am told that it was the Chinese Emperor Shun in the third millenium B.C. who succeeded in escaping from captivity with the aid of "the work clothes of a bird". More recently, in 852 B.C., the legendary tenth king of Britain, Bladud, was credited with a similar attempt.

This is something which has exercised the mind of man for a considerable time. The record shows a gap, apart from some activities by the Greeks of which we have no complete record, until 1507 when John Damian, a physician of the Scottish Court of James IV, experimented with artificial wings and broke a thigh bone in consequence. He seems to have shared the fate of some of the other gentlemen to whom my hon. Friend referred. Most of these experimenters seem to have benefited the medical profession rather than the cause of aviation.

The subject came seriously under consideration at the time of Leonardo da Vinci. Then, in the nineteenth century, we had a number of experiments of this kind by people who had taken a serious scientific interest in the matter. I agree with my hon. Friend that the Royal Aeronautical Society, to which the Government make a small contribution, has taken this matter seriously, and so set up a special man-powered aircraft group to consider methods of achieving man powered flight and to encourage and advise individuals and organisations who undertake such ventures on their own initiative.

The Royal Aeronautical Society moved first. After that a great stimulus to the project came when Mr. Henry Kremer generously offered a prize of £5,000 for the first successful controlled flight of a man-powered aircraft designed, built and flown within the British Commonwealth under conditions to be laid down by the Royal Aeronautical Society.

My hon. Friend has already referred to the regulations and conditions which have now been adopted. I note that in the blackest of type there is a note: The Aircraft will be considered as Gliders and no Permit to Fly or Certificate of Airworthiness will be required. All intending entrants are strongly advised, during trials, to hold adequate insurance cover for Third Party Risks, and to take every precaution against damages to property. However, in spite of these admonitions, several very serious projects have already been started and have received a certain amount of publicity. The first, described as a man-powered ornithopter, has been built by Mr. Emiel Hartman and is propelled by a wing flapping technique. This has not yet achieved free flight, but I am told that it attained a height of 50 feet when towed by a motor car. For the purposes of this test, the College of Aeronautics made available their airfield at Cranfield, and I have no doubt that facilities of that kind would be made available in other suitable cases.

The second project is being undertaken in his own time by Mr. Donald Perkins, a senior scientific officer employed at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Cardington, who has been receiving advice and guidance, but not financial support, from the Royal Aeronautical Society. It is based on the principle of a fixed inflatable wing craft which uses a bicycle propeller installation to drive the propeller. This craft has begun taxi-ing trials but has not yet reached the 20 miles an hour which Mr. Perkins estimates to be required to achieve free flight. I might say that hon. Members who are interested in these matters can find further details and photographs of these projects in the issue of Flight of 30th October, 1959.

I have no doubt that other enthusiasts and organisations are also taking an active interest in the concept. I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend had to say about what is being done at Queen's University, Belfast. I think that a group of young Conservatives at Wood Green are also planning to enter for the prize. If they win, they have announced their laudable intention of devoting the proceeds to charity or to helping other aviation enthusiasts. I fully appreciate what my hon. Friend said about the difficulty of financing such projects before getting into the race at all and having an opportunity to win this prize.

Unfortunately, past experience and studies of this form of travel have shown that human power is inadequate in relation to the weight of a man-powered aircraft to sustain free flight for any reasonable period of time without the assistance of some form of propulsive power. What my hon. Friend had to say about getting to the House was extremely interesting, but I think even the more athletic hon. Members would be hard put to it to generate the necessary one horse-power or so to sustain flight for any length of time. I am inclined to think that the ratio of weight to power in some of us is not at all reassuring. We are concerned more with the width of our tummies than the width of our chests. All this is doubly unfortunate because, on the other hand, the noise-power ratio would be extremely welcome to residents round London Airport.

I note what my hon. Friend had to say on the subject of flying from submarines, but I think that a little far in the future. And in the absence of any foreseeable military use, I think it difficult for the Government to undertake to give any direct financial support. For that reason, my right hon. Friend in answer to my hon. Friend did say in the House on 14th December that Government financial support would not be appropriate. It is hard to see that this has any future other than as an interesting sport and pastime or perhaps some private use for many years to come.

I might point out that it is possible that financial assistance can be obtained through the Royal Aeronautical Society for persons or organisations submitting promising projects. Such submissions must reach the Society by 31st October, 1960. Although the sum of £1,000 to which my hon. Friend referred has been generously donated by Air Commodore J. G. Weir of the Royal Aeronautical Society, I would not mislead the House by suggesting that there are very large sums available at the moment. I think that the Society is hoping for further contributions because, although this is, as my hon. Friend said, a matter that some people take rather lightly, the concept of man-powered flight is not without considerable scientific interest. It has a bearing on the design of very light structures and involves a study of extremely sophisticated aeronautical problems.

Although I may not have been able to give my hon. Friend the satisfaction that he would have wished, I can assure him that my right hon. Friend and I are studying the matter with close attention and will await future developments with interest—particularly the possibility that some new design features of wide application may arise.

Mr. Teeling

Before my hon. Friend sits down, can he tell the House about the possibility of the use of wind tunnels?

Mr. Rippon

I indicated that in one case facilities were made available, and in appropriate cases I am sure that we would provide that sort of facility for tests.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Eleven o'clock.