Since the very earliest times people have looked up at the skies and dreamed of flight. They watched birds flapping their wings and tried to imitate them. Flight also inspired legends such as the tale of Daedalus and Icarus. Human muscle-powered flight was impractical so we had to reach for the skies by other means.
The problem was partially solved by balloon flight from the 1780s and by gliders 100 years later. It was not, however, until the 20th century that the development of the internal combustion engine gave sufficient power at a light enough weight to enable manned flight to become practical for airships and aeroplanes.
These could take-off and land under their own power, could be steered through the air and carry useful loads of fuel, crew, passengers and cargo. Over the next 100 years and into the 21st century, aircraft have transformed the world in which we live.
Northern Ireland has long been associated with aircraft production.
The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum's Flight Experience exhibition incorporates:
The Short SC1
Since the first plane flew, inventors have been trying to design a plane with vertical take- off and landing capabilities, to avoid the need for traditional runways. The Short SC1 was the world’s first vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. It was built by the Short Brothers aircraft factory in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1957 following a request from the military for a research aircraft that could take-off and land without using runways. The SC1 provided important data that influenced later design concepts. The results of the research were made available to other aerospace companies, enabling the UK to be a world leader in VTOL technology.
The Shorts SC1 prototype made its first conventional flight in 1957 with only the tail engine installed. The second prototype which can be seen in The Flight Experience exhibition made its first free flight in 1958 and its first transition from vertical to horizontal flight in 1960.
The second prototype was powered by five engines. Four of these were vertically-mounted, lightweight, Rolls Royce lift engines, which provided vertical thrust. One cruise engine at the back of the aircraft provided thrust for forward flight after take-off.
The cockpit of the SC1 aircraft contains the flight instruments and controls that enable the pilot to fly the aircraft. The cockpit’s single seat is an ejector seat. The pilot has 180-degree view, which improves overall visibility.
The SC1 is fitted with an ejection, or ejector, seat, designed to rescue the pilot of an aircraft (usually military) in an emergency. James Martin, an engineer from Northern Ireland, developed this system.
The Martin-Baker Ejection Seat
James Martin was born in Crossgar, Co. Down, Northern Ireland in 1893. He trained as an engineer, establishing his own engineering firm in 1929. In those days it was an all-embracing company. Martin was an inventor, draughtsman, experimental engineer, toolmaker, fitter, assemblyman, salesman and delivery driver. In 1934, Captain Valentine Baker, a flying instructor, became a partner and together they formed the Martin -Baker Aircraft Company Ltd. Sadly Baker died in 1942 when the plane he was flying in crashed due to engine failure during landing. Two years later the Air Ministry asked Martin-Baker to develop an ejection or ejector seat, as with faster planes, baling out of an aircraft had become impractical or impossible. The first live test was carried out in 1946 by test pilot, John Lancaster, and since then over 7500 lives have been saved by Martin Baker ejection seats. The company is now the largest supplier of ejection seats in the world.
Replica Ferguson Monoplane
The Flight Experience exhibition is home to an exact replica of Harry Ferguson’s monoplane. Harry Ferguson was a brilliant engineer and subsequently inventor of the famous Ferguson tractor system. As a partner in the Belfast motor business of JB Ferguson he anticipated future popular interest in flying. To gain first hand aviation knowledge, Ferguson visited major flight meetings at Reims and Blackpool in 1909. This resulted in the design and construction of his own aircraft, loosely based on the Bleriot monoplane. Ferguson became the first person in Ireland to make a powered flight on 31 December 1909.
Between 1909 and 1912, when Ferguson abandoned flying, he built five versions of his aeroplane. His first flight was at Hillsborough Co. Down and he also made subsequent flights at Magilligan Strand, Co. Londonderry, Newcastle and Newtownards Co. Down.
The Ferguson monoplane in the exhibition replicates the fifth and most successful variant. Built in 1972/1973 by the late Captain JC Kelly Rogers, it incorporates the original pilot’s seat and 35 hp JAP engine.