Could this homegrown California aircraft eclipse the Wright Flyer?
The Wright brothers were wrong — Professor J. S. Zerbe of Los Angeles, California was convinced of it.
Yes, they had been the first to launch a human into powered flight, but they had gone about the task in a completely misguided way. The Wrights had modeled the Flyer on a bird, an idea that the good professor found risible:
To pattern a flying machine on the lines of a bird, furnishing it with wings and legs and a tail, and then supplying nothing in place of the brains or of the instinct which the bird possesses, is a most ridiculous attempt at solving a problem by similarity of suggestion, asserted Zerbe.
To put it another way, the Wright Flyer, with its long, fragile wings was ill-equipped to handle the challenges of flight. Yes, it had flown, but it was not the way forward.
Aero Club of California
Prof. Zerbe was not alone in his assessment of the problem. In May 1908, he and five like-minded inventors announced the formation of a new organization, the Aero Club of California. The club was intended to facilitate the rapid growth of aviation technology. Pooling their financial resources, club members would construct alternative designs, exploring other visions for the aeronautical future.
The visionary, Zerbe, was quickly elected president of the club. His critique of the shortcomings of the Wright Flyer was vindicated in September 1908, when the Flyer crashed, injuring Orville Wright and killing Lieutenant Selfridge, a passenger. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Zerbe wrote, “The accident to the Wright machine at Fort Myer, accentuates what I have all along said about the form of the gliding machine which they use.”
Zerbe noted that the dimensions of the aircraft — wings forty feet long, six feet wide, and placed six feet apart — created a bulky, unmaneuverable craft. This was compounded by the tail that trailed aft. It was a giant, unwieldy box. “I have always maintained,” wrote Zerbe, “that the principle of the gliding machines, as thus represented, is wrong, that they are dangerous to handle, and unsafe under any conditions.”
The great flaw was simple: the Wrights were attempting to force “an object through the air sideways.” Stability, and reduced danger to pilot and passengers, would only come if the aircraft offered a small profile to the oncoming wind. Rather than having wings sticking out the side of the aircraft, the lifting surfaces must sweep backward, hugging the fuselage. “This,” promised Zerbe, “will soon be demonstrated to the world in an effective way.”
The Zerbe Multi-plane
In October 1908, Zerbe announced that he was preparing for flight tests of his new airship. Unlike the Wright Flyer, the Zerbe Multi-plane used a series of wings, stacked above the pilot’s head. The Wright Flyer used two propellers, placed behind the aircraft to push the vehicle through the air. Zerbe’s propeller was placed in front of the wing array. It was designed to direct a flow of air back over the stacked wings that would then generate lift. “The air-blast which I can generate with my 40-horsepower engine and seven-foot propeller will knock a man down,” explained Zerbe. “That is the force which will raise my airship, and which, under perfect control, will enable me to fly the air at will.”
The Wright Flyer had to be moving forward to generate airflow over the wings. “To sail their machine, a running start of twenty miles an hour is necessary,” observed Zerbe. “More serious than that is the fact that the machine cannot travel at less than twenty miles per hour while it is in motion. Therein lies the worst defect of the Wright aeroplane, even if it was a success in other ways.”
Zerbe predicted that the Multi-plane would not require a runway or a running start. “Man must invent a machine that will rise perpendicularly without a start, that can travel at any desired rate of speed, that can poise still in the air, and that can be turned in any direction in the air.”
“That is what I propose to do.”
The patent office, after reviewing Zerbe’s claims, wondered if his plan wasn’t akin to trying to lift oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, but Zerbe was confident that his machine would work.
Zerbe finished installing a newly designed Curtiss Aeroplane engine in the Multi-plane, and was ready for a flight test in December, 1908. Early testing revealed structural problems. On Dec. 12, 1908, the engine spun the propeller to a speed of 790 revolutions per minute. Past this limit, the propeller bent and the aircraft failed to to leave the ground. Two weeks later, with Zerbe’s mechanic, J. H. Klassen in the pilot’s seat, the revolutionary aircraft left the ground and made several short flights, reaching heights of four feet above the earth. As the Los Angeles Herald noted:
The aeroplane has lifted itself three and four feet above the ground without a gliding start, which in itself is a revolutionary development in aeronautics. When the power was shut off and the propeller stopped, instead of dropping to earth, it came down gently from a height of four feet without jarring the machine or the engineer, J. H. Klassen who manned the wheel.
It was an extraordinary outing. Unfortunately, as had been the case earlier in the month, the prototype’s components proved insufficient to support the stress of actual operation. The engine crankshaft cracked under the strain, and Zerbe suspended the day’s testing. Nevertheless, the Zerbe machine had demonstrated the viability of the concept. As the Herald noted, “All other aeroplanes, with two exceptions, have depended on a catapult or another force apart from the machine to start them gliding into the air.” The Multi-plane was able to take flight under its own power.
“We have proved that the machine is practical,” commented Zerbe. “We have seen the aeroplane actually off the ground and it has demonstrated all that we have claimed for it.” As soon as a new nickel-steel crankshaft and a steel propeller could be produced, the Multi-plane would return to the air.
Flight testing resumed in the new year. On January 18, with Zerbe at the helm, the Multi-plane made another attempt to get airborne. Unfortunately, the new propeller broke in the center. A wooden replacement limited the thrust that could be safely generated, and Zerbe simply taxied at speeds of up to fifteen miles per hour. He made no attempt, with the weaker propeller, to force the airplane into the air.
Material stress continued to vex the flight tests. A test on January 25 bent the main support running back through the aircraft, and on January 30, he snapped the new propeller. Although Zerbe never appeared to identify the central issue, it is clear, in retrospect, that the drag created by the stacked wings imposed a huge load on the airplane. When the engine attempted to overcome that drag, tremendous stress was placed on the poorly manufactured components. Zerbe’s concept would probably work, but it required materials far stronger than he had available.
Money was also becoming a problem. Zerbe had invested several years of time, and all of his money, in his innovative idea. If the Multi-plane could be proven, then Zerbe would be catapulted to the front ranks of aeronautical designers. Money and great profit would follow. As the Los Angeles Evening Post-Record noted, “Success means payment in full of all the money that has been expended in the development of the flying machine, for if the machine soars into the skies, it will be the captor of a government prize. Failure means the verge of poverty for the inventor.”
Zerbe spent most of 1909 reworking his design. By September 1909, newspapers began to leak information about a bigger and better Multi-plane. Although the second model adhered to the design of it predecessor, Zerbe replaced the single propeller with a pair of nine foot props.
Los Angeles Aviation Week
Zerbe and his fellow members of the Aero Club of California hoped to have their designs ready for flight at the first Los Angeles Aviation Week, which had been scheduled for January 10–20, 1910. Drawing upon the public’s unprecedented interest in all things aeronautical, promoter Dick Ferris had put together a display of cutting-edge technology that was intended to attract hundreds of thousands. Fifty teams, from across the country, eagerly agreed to exhibit their airplanes at the exhibition.
Local inventors worked feverishly to finish their aircraft. J. H. Klassen, who was now developing his own design, hoped to make an impact with his ‘gyroscope.” Two other members had put their energy into building single-winged aircraft, following the Bleriot design. Professor Twining was working on an “ornithopter.” All of the inventors hoped to capture prizes at the exhibition and demonstrate the viability of their designs.
Unfortunately for Professor Zerbe, Los Angeles Aviation Week illustrated how much ground he had lost. To the amazement of the thousands of spectators who traveled to the event, seventeen flights were made on the first day. The Zerbe Multi-plane did not feature in the list of successful sorties. In fact, it was upstart aviation prodigy, Glenn Curtiss, who seemed to be winning all of the accolades. The Curtiss biplane made six flights on the first day. Its only serious competitor was the Farman biplane, which set the day’s distance record of ten and three-quarters miles. As 20,000 spectators looked on in amazement, powered aircraft passed overhead.
The Zerbe Multi-plane was not among them.
The Final Try
On the second day of the exhibition, Zerbe was ready to launch the Multi-plane. The aircraft was wheeled out in front of the grandstand. As the aviation enthusiasts watched, Zerbe fired up the engine and engaged the two propellers. They began to spin, generate thrust, and pull the Multi-plane forward. The Multi-plane accelerated, reaching a speed of about eight miles per hour. Then, for no apparent reason, acceleration failed. The Multi-plane traveled 150 yards at about the speed of a moderately fast runner. Then the chain that connected the twin propellers to the engine snapped. It separated from its sprockets and wrapped around the left wheel’s axle.
The wheel collapsed. The Multi-plane lurched left, collapsed, and smashed several of the wings. The left propeller struck the muddy ground and shattered.
Professor Zerbe was not injured in the crash, but the plane was severely damaged. As an ambulance made its way across the grass toward him, Zerbe knew his time as an aviation innovator was complete.
Glenn Curtiss’ biplane would roar ahead and win most of the prizes by the end of the exhibition. Curtiss would become America’s most successful airplane designer, bridging the gap between the kite-like Wright Flyer and the increasingly sophisticated biplanes that entered Word War I.
Professor Zerbe’s Multi-plane was consigned to aviation history, an interesting idea whose time never came.
Sources: Los Angeles Evening Express, Oct. 12, 1908; Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, Jan 23, 1909; Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 29, 1908; Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1908–Jan. 12, 1910; San Francisco Call, Mar 8, 1908.
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