Voisin Farman I

Voisin Farman replica at Brussels museum
Farman airplane at Ghent in 1908Voisin biplane in plan

In 1906-07, the Voisin brothers had designed and built a pusher biplane, powered by an Antoinette V-8 engine, that took off on wheels and flew reasonably well. Purchased and modified by French aviation pioneer Henri Farman, a Voisin biplane, in January 1908, became the first airplane in Europe to fly a one kilometer circuit. Later in 1908, he toured extensively with his aeroplane, including a trip to New York in July.


Top Speed: 35 m.p.h.

Engine: 50 h.p.

Wingspan: 37.8 feet

Weight: 1,100 pounds

This Voisin biplane differed from the Wrights’ in that it followed the box-kite principle. It had a box-kite tail to which the rudders were mounted, while the wings had vertical partitions and the plane had no lateral controls, with the result that it could not fly hi any kind of a wind without coming to grief. The first machine had a 50 horse-power Antoinette engine and the latter ones a 40 horse-power Vivinus – an ordinary automobile engine, heavy but reliable.

A One Kilometer Flight

Farman, after extensive tinkering and test flights to his Voisin biplane, on January 13, 1908 at Issy-les-Moulineaux became the first European to succeed in landing back where it had taken off after flying a one kilometer circuit, thus winning the Archdeacon prize.

Farman had idly thought about building an airplane himself some years earlier. But after he saw Santos-Dumont fly over 200 yards at Bagatelle in November, 1906, he decided to take up the problem again. He consulted with the Voisin Brothers and took part with them in some experiments with gliders at Paris-Plage. These experiments were his first lessons in aviation.

Farman described his efforts with the Voisin Farman I to the New York Times:

On the way back to Paris in the train, I gave a contract to MM. Voisin to build an aeroplane for me, and they guaranteed … that I should be able to fly at least a kilometer with it. … On May 20, 1907, the building of the apparatus began. Early in September the airplane was delivered to my shed on the military maneuver grounds at Issy-les-Moulineaux, and after I had the Antoinette motor fitted, I took it out for my first trial.

I spent many days experimenting with it, but I could not rise an inch from the ground. Then, on Oct. 1, I made my first flight. Indeed, it may sound like an exaggeration to call this a flight at all, for I only rose to a height of eighteen inches from the earth and flew a few yards. But thus encouraged, I continued almost daily until Oct. 15 when I made my first successful ascent.

First Ascent

The wind was blowing very strong that day, but I decided to risk it, and see how I should fare against a stiff head breeze. On this occasion I flew 280 meters, but as none of the Commissioners of the Aero Club was present the flight could not be considered an official one. I was out again three days later, Oct. 18, 1907, and made several short flights of one, two, three, four hundred yards. I was so satisfied with the workings of my aeroplane that I asked the commission of the Aero Club to attend on Oct. 26, when I won the Archdeacon Cup, which until then was held by M. Santos-Dumont. My longest flight was then 770 meters – from one end of the grounds to the other. I was very successful throughout the day, for every time I tried my machine I was able to fly. I was satisfied after this that I could rely upon the aeroplane to travel satisfactorily in a straight line, so I immediately set to work to learn how to turn the machine in the air.

Then, on Oct. 28, I experimented with making circles. On the first few attempts I was very successful, and the machine answered to the rudder remarkably well. I met with an accident later in the afternoon, smashing the motor and the propeller. After fitting a new motor of the same make and power, I spent several days working on the engine – improving the carburation and substituting a high-tension magneto system. Weather prevented further trials.

At this time, I had the woodwork of the planes covered with canvas, which has been a great improvement. I also altered the shape of the machine, making the tailpiece much smaller than before and at the same time lighter. From this day until the day before yesterday the weather was freezing, but on Saturday last, despite the cold, I took the aeroplane out in the afternoon and made a flight of nearly nearly two kilometers in a circle. This determined me to call out the commission of the Aero Club for this morning (i.e. Jan. 13, 1908).

The 1 Kilometer Flight

Today I was in the field making my preparations, and when the commission declared that they were ready I got into the seat of the aeroplane and prepared to start. I set the motor going, and then shouted to the men holding the machine behind to let go. I soon felt the earth moving away from me. I regulated the elevating plane, and rose higher still. I had to use some caution when crossing the starting line, for a yard outside this would have meant another trial. Having got safely away from the starting point, I headed for the flagstaff on the other side of the field, which I had to fly around. My machine was working beautifully and I had absolute confidence in success. My confidence in the aeroplane was not misplaced, for on coming around the flagstaff, when half of the journey was accomplished, the machine was flying better than ever.

It was only a matter of a few seconds until I was up again in front of the starting line, which I had to cross again on the return. I waved to my friends and they gave a cheer, for the line was crossed and I had won the much-coveted [Deutsch-Archdeacon] prize.

Farman, a fine pilot, maintained control by skidding around in a wide uncoordinated yaw keeping the machine as level as possible. He had to turn that way because the Voisin-Farman lacked three-axis control, which only the Wright Brothers had achieved.

Unlike the Wright brother’s early airplanes, the Voisin biplane flown by Farman on January 1908 had wheels instead of skids. With more power than the early Wright Flyers, it did not need a catapult to help it launch when the wind was low. The Voisins and other types then flying in Europe were technically incomplete airplanes since they had two-axis control (elevator and rudder only). Lacking ailerons or wing warping, they had no mechanism for roll control.

Henri Farman did much to popularize the Voisin biplane, which was a sturdy and dependable machine despite its limited and generally difficult controllability. It should be noted that Farman made many improvements to Voisin’s basic design, and that much of this airplane’s success and acclaim is due to Farman. Flying in the same Voisin biplane in which he had performed Europe’s first 1 kilometer circle in January 1908, Farman expanded his records with much longer cross-country flights outside of Paris. An important factor that helped these new performances was that Farman had improved his Voisin biplane with a set of movable wing ailerons that he could control from the pilot’s position.

Farman in New York, a Description of His Airplane

Farman arrived in New York in late July, 1908, for flight exhibitions at Brighton Beach. The New York Times described his aircraft:

Henri Farman’s airplane, in the Brighton Beach racetrack, has been assembled by his mechanics into such shape that those who saw it were able to form a fair idea of its construction and appearance. However the tuning of the piano wires that give rigidity to the structure, and the installation of the eight-cylinder gasoline motor will take more time, so that Farman will not be able to fly until tomorrow.

The aeroplane appeared to have been constructed somewhat after the fashion of a bird, balancing itself in the air on wide-spread wings, and forward part that might even be regarded as a beak.

[ad#ad-1]The main wings are two horizontal planes, of thin fragile canvas, covered with a rubber composition. These measure 32 feet from end to end; they are about 5 feet apart, and their width is 6 and 1/2 feet. They are mounted on a lightweight spruce frame.

Set behind the two main wings, 10 feet away, is a box-like structure, open front and back, so that it presents no resistance to the air. This is the rudder house. Within this canvas box, is a vertical plane, whose movements, controlled by a steering wheel, govern the movement of the craft from side to side. (Note: The photograph of the replica does NOT show this vertical rudder.) This marks a point of divergence from the machine of the Wright brothers, who use merely a plane as a rudder. The rudder house is 10 by 6 feet.

The Steering Wheel

Set out in front of the aeroplane are two horizontal planes (elevators)whose angles may be varied at will. These govern the upward and downward movement of the aeroplane. In between these the two forward elevators is a small canvas-enclosed area where Mr. Farman will sit at the wheel. Behind him is the eight-cylinder motor.

The turning of the wheel will move the aeroplane right or left, while the entire steering post, by a backward or forward motion, will govern the upward or downward fight of the aeroplane. In the Wright machine, there are four levers for the purpose of steering, while in the Farman aeroplane, the wheel, by its natural movement or the movement of the steering post, governs the whole steering gear.

The engine will drive four propeller blades set at the rear like the propellers of a ship. Since everything has to be as light as possible, the machine cannot carry enough water in its radiator and water circulator to permit long flights. Also the weight of gasoline prevents the airplane from carrying much fuel.

The whole aircraft weighs 1,100 pounds. The motor, including water tanks and propellers, weighs 300 pounds. It is supported by four bicycle-type wheels: two mounted below the engine, and another pair under the rear rudder house. All four wheels have pneumatic tires, to minimize the shock of the aeroplane striking the ground.

For instance,on October 30,1908, Henri Farman flew non stop his modified Voisin-Farman biplane over 27 kilometers (16 miles) in 20 minutes, between the towns of Bouy and Reims in eastern France. For the record, the locations associated with earlier and much shorter flights , Neuilly-Bagatelle, Issy-les-Moulineaux and Billancourt (where the Voisin brothers had their first factory), are all suburbs on the west side of Paris.

The Voisin Farman II was unsuccessful. Branching out on his own, Henri Farman built the Farman III, the first airplane to use ailerons as control surfaces, instead of the Wrights’ wing-warping technique.

Continue reading about the Farman III here.

VOISIN BIPLANE (1909) – Specifications from “Monoplanes and Biplanes,â€