This article was first published in the Hiller Aviation Museum special advertising section in the San Mateo County Times in June 1998

By William Cracraft

The Avitor Hermes Jr. hangs, like something from DaVinci’s sketchbook, twirling slowly in the atmosphere of Hiller Aviation Museum. This remarkable reproduction of an aircraft, designed and constructed by one Frederick Marriott, holds the eye like a prehistoric creature in a city zoo.

Its bag corralled by bamboo framework and guided by a Flintstones-like rudder, the Avitor flew five years after the Civil War ended. Custer had yet to make his last stand and powered, manned flight was over 30 years away.

The original craft, named Avitor Hermes Jr., was built in San Francisco and flew on the Peninsula on July 2, 1869. Construction of the Avitor was funded by William Ralston, local banker and builder of Ralston Hall, now the centerpiece of the College of Notre Dame in Belmont. Marriott, an English newspaperman, was both partner and publicist for an unsuccessful airplane in the 1840s. Marriott had also collaborated in London with a couple of fellows named Stringfellow and Henson, who trained under one Sir George Cayly, oft considered to be the father of aircraft design.

In 1848, Marriott boarded a ship for California and settled in San Francisco as a banker and newspaperman. One of Mark Twain’s early publishers, by 1866 he had formed the Aerial Steam Navigation Company to create an airline between New York and San Francisco.

Marriott built the Avitor Hermes Jr. as a predecessor to the Avitor Hermes, a projected 150-foot manned behemoth of the sky intended to lead a fleet of similar machines across the country.

One of the key factors influencing the Avitor’s construction was its West Coast berth. Only in San Francisco were silk and bamboo from the Orient cheaply and readily available. Location was also one of the reasons the Avitor didn’t attract much notice.

“One of the bad things is that it was the Bay Area in 1869,” said Willie Turner of the museum. “They just didn’t have the major financial, education, media and government institutions. Everything was East Coast. This was probably viewed as more of a stunt than a real test flight,” he said.

One of the key similarities in the Avitor and modern aircraft was the use of the three-axis control system, still in use today. The delta-shaped wings, ailerons, landing gear and propeller were all forerunners to the same pitch, yaw and roll controls on today’s aircraft.

Although the craft had a gas bag to provide buoyancy, it was heavier than air and relied on its one-cylinder, alcohol-powered steam engine to give it lift and steerage. The “aeroplane,” a term coined by Marriott, had an 18-foot wingspan and was driven by twin propellers.

Driven by a one-horsepower motor, the 50-foot craft was flown from Shell Mound Park, probably near Bay Meadows Raceway, in front of a small crowd. The hydrogen-filled aircraft was tethered to the ground by ropes Marriott used to control the rudder.

Moving about five miles per hour, Marriott walked the plane nearly a mile. The flight, both with and against the wind, is generally considered the first flight of a heavier-than-aircraft on this side of the Atlantic. Marriott made plans to build a larger machine and created the Aerial Steam Navigation Company.

Marriott waxed poetic in his dreams of aeronautical glory. “No savages in war paint shall interrupt its passage … across our continent. No malaria, or hostile tribes nor desert sands shall prevent the exploration of Africa. . . . Man rises superior to his accidents when for his inventive genius he ceases to crawl upon the earth and masters the realms of the upper air.”*

Unfortunately, “on one of its early flights someone got too ·close to it with a cigar and since it was filled with hydrogen that was the end of the Avitor,” said Turner. As Marriott prepared to build his larger Avitor Hermes, the 1870 stock-market crash deflated his dreams and though he recovered financially, he died before putting his plan into action.*

Now, a collaboration between Ken Spence and Stanley Hiller has resurrected the Avitor. Spence, formerly with Lockheed Aviation in Southern California, had experience building a space station, but needed to change gears.

Bamboo had to be selected to balance the craft perfectly, sections had to be joined with carefully carved balsawood fittings. The envelope, or balloon, was manufactured by a local company, Pie-in-the-Sky of Redwood City. A producer of advertising balloons, Pie-in-the-Sky’s Mike Handler rose to the challenge.

The men worked from photos as well as printed descriptions of the aircraft. The landing gear is four little wooden wheels on a square bamboo frame, just as in the original. The landing gear, structure is part of the chassis that also supports the engine and boiler. The engine mounted in the replica is quite similar to the original and is connected via wooden driveshafts to the propellers and turns them at about 100 rpm.

*John Lienhard, the University of Houston’s College of Engineering


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