Whenever a sceptic wants to cast doubt on the Wright brothers’ claim to be “firsl to fly”. he is likely to cite the experiments of French engineer Clément Ader. Where most aviation pioneers studied the flight of birds, Ader perversely, modelled his flying machines on bats. His weirdly gothic steam-powered monoplanes were sufficiently impressive to attract financial hacking from the French army, but whether they actually flew remains open to doubt.
Ader’s first machine, the Eole of 1890, has been credited with the first powered take-off; however, there is no hard evidence to back the claim. His second was Avion III (the intervening Avion II being abandoned as a failure). Its two 20-hp steam engines each drove a propeller with four bamboo blades resembling giant feathers. Its only controls were a painfully slow method of swinging the wings fore and aft horizontally, a fabric rudder operated by pedals that also turned the rear undercarriage wheel, and a differential speed device for t he propellers.
On its first trial, conducted on a circular track, Avion III remained stubbornly earthbound. Two days later, on its second trial, the rear wheel apparently lifted but the aircraft was then wrecked by a gust of wind. It was never tested again. However, in 1906 Ader suddenly claimed to have made a flight of 984ft on the machine’s second outing; the evidence suggests that it never got off the ground.