[FoRK] [silk] A new kind of aircraft? (fwd from udhay@pobox.com)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Tue Sep 7 00:04:36 PDT 2004

----- Forwarded message from Udhay Shankar N <udhay at pobox.com> -----

From: Udhay Shankar N <udhay at pobox.com>
Date: Tue, 07 Sep 2004 09:17:43 +0530
To: silklist at lists.hserus.net
Subject: [silk] A new kind of aircraft?
Reply-To: silklist at lists.hserus.net


Home  > News > World > Sci/Technology

Aeroplane breakthrough
A Leonardo da Vinci for the twenty-first century

It may look like a combine-harvester but a plane designed in a Tuscan 
farmhouse is being hailed as one of the great breakthroughs in aeronautical 
history. Peter Popham meets its inventor

06 September 2004

The wheat fields roll, the high pines march along the ancient roads, the 
sweet sunshine pours down. This pretty, rust-red farmhouse off the Via 
Laurentina would make the perfect setting for a Roman rival to Under the 
Tuscan Sun, a good place to work up a new Italian cook book.

Instead it is the birthplace of a new aeroplane hailed as "the fourth great 
breakthrough in aeronautical science". Leonardo da Vinci has skipped 
forward a few centuries and south a few hundred miles and taken up 
residence in the body of an expatriate American called Patrick Peebles.

A self-taught inventor whose ideas include a loudspeaker composed of a gas 
flame and a rotating fork for eating spaghetti may be on the brink of 
conquering the aircraft industry.

Pat Peebles, a compulsive tinkerer who skipped university and whose last 
proper job involved servicing McDonald's food processors has invented a new 
aeroplane that looks as if it has been crossed with a combine harvester. 
"At Farnborough [air show] recently a lot of people asked if it would also 
mow their grass," he admitted.

But the bizarre-looking aircraft, with long rotors running the length of 
both wings, has already attracted tens of thousands of pounds in grants 
from the British Government. Mr Peebles is to be honoured, alongside Burt 
Rutan, pioneer of cut-price space flight, at the World Technology 
Innovation Awards in San Francisco next month.

In his small workshop, Mr Peebles is working feverishly on the latest 
refinement of his "fan wing" design, a proposal for the American government 
to give it vertical take-off capability. If the Pentagon goes for it, his 
revolutionary aircraft, which has also been dubbed a "sky barge", could 
within a couple of years become an operational reality.

It is the classic story of the solitary, quietly cranky inventor riding his 
hobby horses, going his own way and dreaming up something stunningly new, 
precisely because he is not an expert - "not disadvantaged", as one of his 
admirers put it, "by knowledge".

Mr Peebles, an American, was born in Washington DC and raised in Rome, 
where his father worked for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation. 
After a spell in Britain, where he met his British wife, and now his 
business partner, Dikla, he moved back to the Italian capital.

Inventing stuff was Pat's passion, first under the kindly eye of his dad, 
later in whatever time he could steal from his humdrum jobs. "I have a very 
hard time with traditional thought processes," said Mr Peebles. "I was very 
hard to teach, did very badly at school. I was in a daydream the whole time."

The flame loudspeaker was an early invention: with a tiny earphone at the 
base, and a flame rising above it which amplified the sound. "It worked," 
he said, "but it wasn't very practical carrying a bottle of gas with your 

The spaghetti-twirling fork, another early wheeze, was built as a birthday 
present for his brother. Still in working order, constructed all in brass, 
it's a handsome item, though perhaps a little heavy for daily use. "I asked 
my mother to lend me a nice fork," said Pat. "She didn't know I was going 
to saw it in half." His other inventions include a piano keyboard enabling 
all keys to be played using the same fingering, and what may have been the 
first electronic planimeter, a device for calculating the area of land, 
which Pat actually manufactured and sold to the Italian government before 
the Japanese came up with a prettier version.

To date, the planimeter is as close as he has come to successfully 
commercialising an invention. But the fan wing aeroplane has taken him to 
another dimension altogether.

"Part of inventing," he said, "is trying to improve things, but it's partly 
just being bloody-minded and wanting to do things differently. A lot of the 
things that I've worked on in the past didn't actually work out very well. 
But the fan wing actually worked out.

"The genesis of the idea," he went on, "was to distribute the flow of air 
as far as possible over the aircraft. We take that to the extreme, sucking 
the air in through the front over a rather large area, the whole width of 
the fan. It compresses the air as it comes through the fan and it gets 
blown out at very high speed across the wing's trailing edge." When he 
dreamed up the idea, he had no notion whether it would work or not - or, 
indeed, whether somebody else had got there first. "Many years ago," he 
said, "I worked on a new engine which employed hot air, where air was moved 
from one section to another and heated and cooled at very high speed. I was 
very excited about it - but then I looked it up in the literature and found 
it had been developed in 1816 by somebody else. A fellow called Stirling, 
it was the famous Stirling cycle engine.

"I'd fully expected also with this technology to find out that Blogs had 
developed it in '54 and it hadn't gone anywhere. So I was continually 
surprised that nobody knew about it, and that it actually turned out to be 
different." The first imperative with any invention is to keep it secret. 
"You have to keep the thing totally private before you do the patent," he 

"Before I deposited the first patent we were doing tests at night time in 
the car park of the local supermarket. That's what we had to do, much to 
the terrible embarrassment of my son, to see this absolute nutcase of a 
father going into the car park with this ridiculous machine trying to get 
it to fly. And of course the first times it wouldn't fly."

Then there was the Wright Brothers moment, when he got it into the air and 
it stayed there. "It didn't go very far the first time: it went up, flipped 
over and crashed. But at least it got off the ground, we'd proved it was 

The next challenge - after further tweaking had yielded more impressive 
flights - was to patent the plane: enormously expensive, as they 
discovered. "We suddenly found ourselves facing an enormous bill," said his 
wife, Dikla. "Suddenly we had to come up with £20,000 for the first 
patents, and we had no money at all."

"I was ready to quit," said Pat, "because I realised there was no way 
privately that I could raise that much money, and I wasn't going to put the 
family into that kind of debt." But then Dikla, a teacher and poet with 
several books to her name, threw herself into the task. "That was when we 
took the decision to collaborate," she said, "and to call round family and 
friends and say we're starting a company, do you want to put in x? The 
money came in and we got £21,000 the day before the deadline. That was in 
1999. Ultimately, we got the money for the patents we wanted."

The result was Fan Wing, a British plc, with its own website, fanwing.com, 
designed by their son Daniel; from its obscure origins in a supermarket car 
park, the sky barge was on its way.

Family and friends had rallied round, but for the outside world the 
credibility gap continued to gape. Enter David Nicholas, an engineer and 
naval architect and until recently innovations and technology counsellor 
for Business Link Wessex, a man whom Dikla describes as "the inventors' 
guru" and who has been the midwife for the projects of many struggling 
British geniuses in recent years.

"I met Pat two and a half years ago," Mr Nicholas said, "through the 
introduction of a friend who had seen this remarkable idea of his when they 
had no money." Mr Nicholas guided them through the next phase, setting up a 
"virtual company" with respected figures in engineering and aeronautics as 
unpaid directors to give Pat the credibility that his one-man set-up 
lacked. The first fruit was a £45,000 grant from the Department of Trade 
and Industry. Peebles used the money to build a much larger and more 
impressive working model - total wingspan about 15 feet - developed in the 
wind tunnel of London's Imperial College, and multiplying its efficiency in 
the process.

"It was absolutely fabulous," Pat recalled. "We doubled the efficiency in 
two weeks of wind tunnel testing. It was very exciting because, being a new 
device, very small changes can make big changes in the efficiency. People 
are still trying to tweak conventional aircraft but they're lucky if they 
get half a per cent, maybe one per cent, change in efficiency. But at this 
early stage, there was one point where we moved a little section of the 
wing by 10mm and got a 30 per cent increase in efficiency."

Mr Nicholas said: "An employee of British Aerospace told me that Pat got 
more out of that £45,000 than British Aerospace would have got out of £4m." 
Mr Nicholas said that when he first saw a laptop video of the flight of an 
early model of the Fan Wing, "I was blown away by its astonishing 
performance. It can go very slowly like a helicopter, but it can carry much 
heavier loads. Pat doesn't like me saying this, but I regard his plane as 
the fourth great breakthrough in aeronautical science: there was Orville 
and Wilbur Wright, Sikorski's helicopter, Sidney Camm's jump jet, and Pat 
Peebles and the fan wing." The plane's unique attributes mean that, if and 
when a government finally decides to put serious money behind it, the range 
of possible applications is bewilderingly large.

"It's quieter than a helicopter of the equivalent weight," Mr Peebles said. 
"They've been trying for years to get permission to fly helicopters into 
Heathrow for commuters out of the bankers' belt, and they never can because 
they make too much noise. So this could be very useful for connecting for 
example the five airports around London, a flying bus going maybe 60, 
80mph, maybe 100 mph."

Likewise, the plane could also be used to deliver aid in Third World 
countries with bad roads, or to fly back and forth over mine fields 
carrying heavy, ground-penetrating radar to detect land mines. Or 
alternatively, it could be employed as an unmanned plane carrying heavy 
weapons and firing them into people's living rooms.

"We're not sure what our politics are here," added Pat. "It would feel 
better obviously to go for something that would be helpful and 
non-aggressive - minefields, developing countries, freight. But practically 
everything that's been developed started off being developed by the 
military." Whoever ends up buying fan wing, Pat is looking forward to the 
breakthrough - so he can go back to his daydreams. "Running a company is 
very time-consuming work," he said. "There's not much time to get one's 
hands dirty. It would be nice to design some other things." A better 
spaghetti twirler, say.


By James Burleigh

1480s: Leonardo da Vinci made the first studies of flight producing over 
100 drawings. His Ornithopter was not built in his lifetime but the modern 
helicopter is based on it.

1783: The Montgolfier brothers invented the first hot air balloon, lifting 
a sheep, a chicken and a duck to 6,000 feet. The first manned flight was on 
21 November.

1799-1850: Sir George Cayley designed numerous gliders and pioneered many 
aerodynamic designs, including wings and a tail to help with stability.

1891: German engineer Otto Lilienthal designed the first glider which could 
carry an adult long distances. After more than 2,500 flights, he was killed 
when he lost control because of a gust of wind.

1891: Samuel Langley built a model of a plane, called an "aerodrome", 
powered by steam. His model flew just under a mile before running out of 
fuel. He got a $50,000 grant to build a full-sized version but it was too 
heavy to fly and, discouraged, he gave up.

1894: Octave Chanute published Progress in Flying Machines, which collated 
and analysed all the technical knowledge he could find about aviation.

1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright's powered plane, Flyer, lifted off from 
Kitty Hawk to the north of Big Kill Devil Hill, at 10.35am on 17 December. 
Orville piloted the plane, which weighed 605lb and travelled 120 feet in 12 

1909: Frenchman Louis Bleriot became the first to cross the English 
Channelin a plane on 25 July. His monoplane was to become a template for 
future designs.

1941: Sir Frank Whittle designed the jet engine. On 15 May, an experimental 
plane called the Gloster Pioneer made its first flight at an air base in 

1969: Concorde, an Anglo-French collaboration, became the world's first 
supersonic passenger airliner on 2 March. It left service on 24 October 
last year.

((Udhay Shankar N)) ((udhay @ pobox.com)) ((www.digeratus.com))

silklist's home away from home
silklist at lists.hserus.net

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