History Behind The Card: “Voisin” Type Biplane
Card #37 of 50, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1910
- Gabriel Voisin, February 5, 1880 in Belleville-sur-Saône, France – December 25, 1973, Ozenay, Saône-et-Loire, France;
- Charles Voisin, July 12, 1882 in Lyon, France – September 26, 1912 in Belleville-sur-Saône;
- Henri (Henry) Farman, May 26, 1874 in Paris, France – July 17, 1958 in Paris, France.
Gabriel Voisin was the builder of Europe’s first manned, engine-powered, heavier-than-air aircraft capable of a sustained (one kilometer), circular, controlled flight, including take-off and landing – a feat performed by pilot Henry Farman on January 13, 1908 near Paris, France.
Gabriel and his younger brother Charles were best of friends – perhaps due to the fact that their father took off and left the wife and two kids. Her father, the boy’s grandfather – Charles Forestier – helped educate the boys, and with money from his own factory.
When the grandfather died, Gabriel was sent to the school Ecole des Beaux Arts de Lyon in Lyon and learned industrial design… something he really took a shine to. When he came home, he, with help from his brother, would build a rifle, a steam boat and an automobile by the end of the 19th century.
Graduating in 1899, Gabriel joined an architectural company in Paris… and it was there in Paris that he saw the Avion III aeroplane built by Clément Ader, which inspired him to try and create a heavier-than-air aeroplane… which at that time still had not achieved flight.
Completing a nine-month tour of military service, in February of 1904 he listened to a speech given by Captain Ferdinand Ferber, one of the leading figures in French aviation circles at the time.Ferber was never able to build his own aeroplanes to fly successfully, but he is recalled as being one of the first to recognize and publicize the success of the Wright Brothers, which gave Europe a heavy push to do the same (The Wright Brothers did not want to share secrets that they thought they could make them very rich by selling their contraption to the U.S. military).
Anyhow, Gabriel Voisin chatted up Ferber and was introduced to Ernest Archdeacon, the leading promoter and financial supporter of early French aviation, who hired him to test fly the Wright-type glider that he had had built.
The tests took place at Berck-sur-Mer, France in April of 1904, and they were able to earn some short hops of around 20 meters (66 feet). Note that this was a glider… not a motor-propelled aircraft.
Still unaware at this time that the Wright Brothers had flown a real aeroplane, Archdeacon paid Voisin to build another glider similar to the first, but one that had a fixed horizontal stabilizer behind the wings, in addition to its front-mounted elevator.
The second glider was tested at Issy-les-Moulineaux on March 26, 1905 by towing it into the air using Archdeacon’s automobile. Instead of a pilot, they used 50 kg (110 lb) of ballast – good thing too, because a structural failure caused the plane to collapse. They did not rebuild it.
Voisin then designed and built a glider equipped with floats for Archdeacon. This aircraft marks the first use of Hargrave cells, used both for the empennage and the wings. Voisin successfully flew it on June 8, 1905 for 600 m (2,000 ft), as it was towed into the air behind a motor boat on the river Seine.
It was while working on this glider, that Louis Blériot asked Voisin to build him a similar machine, later known as the Blériot II.
Bleriot towed the glider (piloted by Voisin) by motorboat on the Seine at Billancourt on July 18, 1905. As it began to lift into the air, the still unstable glider (based on the previous poor glider) caught its left wing in the water and crashed, almost drowning Voisin. It was built with two large Hargrave cells, one for the tail and one for the wings, with a single elevator forward. As well, two sets of side-curtains were set between the wings on each side, the outer set at an angle, while two long floats supported the aeroplane. It had a forward wing span of seven meters (22.97 feet) and weighed under 200 kilograms (441lbs).
Now… if you and built a house that caught fire because we made it poorly, we might reconsider our partnership. But not Bleriot and Voisin, who suggested they form a partnership even though that first glider was an utter failure. Voisin ended his deal with Archdeacon
Next up from Voisin was the Blériot III, a real aeroplane… a tandem biplane powered by an Antoinette engine driving two tractor propellers with the wings formed into a closed ellipse as seen from the front.
Did it fly? Of course not! This led to the modified version known as the Blériot IV, which replaced the forward wing to make it look more like a standard biplane… but then they added a second Antoinette engine to the mix. Experiments were made first with floats and then with a wheeled undercarriage, and the aircraft was wrecked on November 12, 1906 when it was taxiing at Bagatelle, France.
Later that same day… at the same area at Bagatelle, Alberto Santos-Dumont succeeded in flying his 14-bis canard biplane for a distance of over 100 meters (328 ft). More on Santos-Dumont HERE.
You’d think that would disappoint Voisin, and you’d be correct, as he and Blériot dissolved their partnership.
Believing his own designs were compromised by the input of others, Gabriel and brother Charles set up the Appareils d’Aviation Les Frères Voisin (“Voisin Brothers’ Flying Machines“) in 1906 – to design and manufacture aeroplanes. It would become the world’s first commercial airplane factory.
So… the Voisin brothers went to work, building their first successful plane in 1907, a pusher Voisin biplane with a 50 horsepower water-cooled V8 Antoinette engine, built for pioneer aviation pilot (and sculptor) Leon Delagrange. Before giving it to him, Charles tested on March 16, 1907, flying it for 10 meters at meters at Neuilly-Bagatelle.
I suppose that was a successful test.
The first of these Voisin biplanes were designated after their owners, therefore this first plane was the Delagrange 1. Delagrange ended up wrecking the plane in November of that year, but promptly ordered his Delagrange II.
The Voisin brothers felt that they would achieve fame if the plane was named after the pilot, rather than the designer… but that wasn’t a sound strategy, as you can imagine. They did place their name in small type below the plane’s designated name, however.
For the record, the very first plane the brothers built was not successful, but it wasn’t their fault. The plane was built in March of 1907 for Henry Kapferer, but he insisted they use a 20 horsepower Buchet gasoline engine, which simply wasn’t strong enough to get in the air.
The brothers actually built the plane they wanted with the Antoinette engine before that, with Gabriel Voisin testing it first in February of 1907, making modifications, with Charles finally gaining 60 meters (200 feet) on March 30, 1907.
The early Voisin craft was a two-bay biplane with a wingspan of 10 meters (33 feet). A biplane elevator was carried in front of the wings on the end of a short nacelle and a boxkite-like biplane empennage of half the span of the mainplanes with three vertical surfaces each carrying a trailing-edge rudder was carried on booms behind the wings. The undercarriage consisted of a pair of wheels on v-struts under the trailing edge of the wings and small wheels mounted at the ends of the lower tailbooms. There was no provision for lateral control. Just look at the card at the very top of this blog.
It used an early form of direct gasoline injection and weighed only 96.2 kilograms (190 pounds) in working order, including the water-filled cooling system. Its power-to-weight ratio was not surpassed for another 25 years. The engine block consisted entirely of cast aluminum holding removable steel cylinders.
Perhaps the best known pilot to own a Voisin biplane was Henry Farman in the Voisin-Farman, but later known as the Farman I.
I will be discussing Henry Farman in this blog in greater detail later, but suffice to say, Farman and the Voisin pusher biplane set all sorts of records, even becoming the first in Europe to successfully complete a 1 km closed circuit at Issy-les-Moulineaux on January 13, 1908, winning the Archdeacon’s F50,000 Grand Prix d’Aviation prize.
Because of this early success by Farman and to Delagrange–each sough to best the other with constant record-breaking flights–the Voisin pusher biplane became the plane to own.
Eventually,the partnership between the Voisin’s and Farman ended after a plane they had built to Farman’s specification was sold to John Moore-Brabazon (the plane was named the Bird of Passage). Ticked off, Farman started building planes of his own design – the first of which was the Farman III. And yes, the Voisin’s had previously built a Farman II.
But, by then, success had found the Voisin’s, eventually expanding the factory to keep up with the orders.
And then… tragedy, as Charles Voisin was killed in a car accident on September 26, 1912. Although Gabriel was affected terribly, he soldiered on, continuing his expansion, eventually changing the company name to Société Anonyme des Aéroplanes G. Voisin.
In 1913, Voisin began making planes for the French military… and with teh advent of WWI (The Great War) in 1914, he volunteered with the French Air Corps… but still his factory kept churning our aeroplanes… specifically the Voisin III, a two-seater pusher biplane with a 120 horsepower Salmson radial engine, that was extensively used for bombing and observation missions during the war, with some 1,000 planes built. The Type VIII (about 1,100 built) and Type X (about 900 built) were delivered in 1917 and 1918. Those last to appear Voisin military aircraft were almost identical in appearance to the Voisin III, although they were heavier and featured twice as powerful Peugeot and Renault engines. They also had a longer range and carried almost twice the bomb load of their predecessor.
Like many who saw the ravages of war, Gabriel Voisin couldn’t stomach creating machines to kill people, and so he began manufacturing automobiles under the Avions Voisin brand until 1958.
In the 1920s, the company also proposed a ‘Motor-Fly’ which was a bicycle with an small auxiliary 2-stroke engine added to the back wheel, and also produced prefabricated houses that could be built in three days (‘votre maison en trois jours – your house in three days’). These were available with a floor area of 35, 75 or 105 square meters, and were constructed around a metal framework. Some of these houses still exist, but none in their original condition. The houses carry the logo ‘Avion Voisin Issy‘, just like the other products from the factory.
In 1909, Gabriel Voisin married Adrienne-Lola Bernet and had a daughter named Janine.
Gabriel retired in 1960, was made a Commander of the Legion d’Honneur and died in 1973. He is buried Le Villars in France.