Alphonse Pénaud is a name many people may not have heard, but also a name that everyone involved in RC aircraft should recognize and respect. His time on earth was short, he was born in Paris in 1850 and committed suicide in 1880 at the age of 30. But during that short time, he shook the scientific world and changed everyone’s perspective of what mankind was capable of. He did it all with a simple tool – a controllable model airplane. Yes, Alphonse Pénaud is the father of model airplanes, and model helicopters as well. Of course, back when he was making them no full-sized airplanes had ever been produced. His work would be an inspiration for the next generation of scientists and engineers, and eventually help to create a human flying machine.
Pénaud built many models, but his principle concern was the “Planophore”. The Planophore was a small model aircraft with a wingspan of only about one and a half feet. It was powered by a rubber band and resembled a modern day balsa wood airplane kit. Two major versions were produced, one with a standard tractor propeller located in front of the plane, and another with a push propeller located in the rear. He would continue to improve his Planophore for the duration of his life, adding weights and making the models more aerodynamically sound. He even invented wing washout to solve one of its problems, a feature that would later be seen on full sized modern aircraft.
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The Planophore was the first model of its type and Pénaud travelled around demonstrating its flight capabilities. It was endorsed by the Société Française de Navigation Aérienne, a recently formed French society for aeronautical navigation. Pénaud developed other flying models as well. His first ever model (even before the Planophore) was a basic helicopter design that he had built by a watchmaker to exacting specifications. It even had gold plated propeller blades. Imagine how much your co-axial would cost with gold plated blades. He tried his hand at ornithopters as well, producing a model that was able to travel up to 15 meters. While this was impressive, it paled in comparison to the 60 meter flight distance of the Planophore. Later he would try different helicopter designs as well as further refining and experimenting with his Planophore design.
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Pénaud was not only a designer but published many studies as well. He was a strong advocate of the internal combustion engine despite steam and electric engines being the preferred technology of the time. Many of his studies revolved around aerodynamics, drag and weight. He put forth revolutionary ideas of how to overcome the problems of flight that would become even more relevant years later during the production of full sized aircraft. He also revived the work of many former scientists and published this as well.
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Perhaps Pénaud’s most revolutionary design was the two passenger amphibious plane that he developed in conjunction with Paul Gauchot. This design was incredible for many reasons. First of all, it was amphibious with waterproof components and the ability to land on sea. It also had retractable landing gear, electronically controlled elevators, an air pressure indicator, bank indicator, anemometer, a windshield and even the possibility of being launched by a catapult. It was way ahead of its time and many of its features are still seen on aircraft today. The invention was registered in 1876. Three years later Pénaud would attend a meeting of the Société Française de Navigation Aérienne, where he realized the society would provide no more financial backing. Pénaud then returned home, placed all of his original blueprints in a small coffin, and shot himself.
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Although the man was dead, his ideas would continue to live on and drastically shape the future of mankind. Years later two boys in America would be given one of Pénaud’s helicopter toys by their father, and it would inspire them to new heights. These boys were named Orville and Wilbur Wright, and they would later study Pénaud’s diagrams and papers, and cite him as a major inspiration, before creating the machine that would provide the world’s first ever human flight. Today our functioning model airplanes, whether powered by the new powerful brushless electric motors or internal combustion engines, are based on full-sized airplanes. Many of them even come ready to fly because we can’t figure out how they go together. Alphonse Pénaud imagined, designed and produced model airplanes on which full-sized airplanes were based. Think about that.