Compressed-Air Aeroplanes.

Updated: 6 Apr 2009
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As described on other pages, the energy storage capabilities of compressed air are rather limited. See compressed-air vehicles. About the least suitable application is the propulsion of aeroplanes, where the need for a large and strongly-built reservoir is a crippling drawback. Nonetheless, in the very earliest days of attempted aviation, it was tried several times, for want of anything better. Faute de mieux, as the French say, though for some reason that always makes me think of mustard.

Left: The Tatin compressed-air model plane of 1879

In 1879, M Victor Tatin built a twin-propellor model aeroplane weighing 1.75 kg, powered by compressed air.

The main body of the plane was a cylindrical reservoir filled with air, fitted with conical caps at each end for streamlining, and apparently having some sort of spiral reinforcement. The air reservoir had a capacity of 8 litres, and is quoted as resisting a pressure of "20 kg", which presumably means 20 kg per square centimetre, equivalent to 284 psi.
The plan view shows a centrally mounted compressed-air motor coupled to the two contra-rotating propellors by a transverse shaft and bevel gearing. A pressure gauge can be seen just behind the motor. The construction of the motor is currently unknown.

The model is reported to have taken off when its forward speed reached 8 metres per second (18 mph), and it was flown successfully in circles, tethered to a central point, at the military establishment at Chalais-Meudon in 1879. It circled at about head height. The duration of flights was not reported.

It is notable that this model has quite a modern look, considering it was built 24 years before the Wright brothers flew in 1903. Note, however, that there appear to be no control surfaces; Tatin had not solved the problem of controlling an aeroplane in flight.

In 1890 Tatin and his associate Ch Richet went on to build a steam-powered aeroplane model weighing 33 kg, which made at least one short flight.

From La Navigation Aérienne by Le Cornu. Pub by Librarie Nony & Co, 1903

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