- The wheat fields roll, the high pines march along the
ancient roads, the sweet sunshine pours down. This pretty, rust-red farmhouse
off the Via Laurentina would make the perfect setting for a Roman rival
to Under the Tuscan Sun, a good place to work up a new Italian cook book.
- Instead it is the birthplace of a new aeroplane hailed
as "the fourth great breakthrough in aeronautical science". Leonardo
da Vinci has skipped forward a few centuries and south a few hundred miles
and taken up residence in the body of an expatriate American called Patrick
- A self-taught inventor whose ideas include a loudspeaker
composed of a gas flame and a rotating fork for eating spaghetti may be
on the brink of conquering the aircraft industry.
- Pat Peebles, a compulsive tinkerer who skipped university
and whose last proper job involved servicing McDonald's food processors
has invented a new aeroplane that looks as if it has been crossed with
a combine harvester. "At Farnborough [air show] recently a lot of
people asked if it would also mow their grass," he admitted.
- But the bizarre-looking aircraft, with long rotors running
the length of both wings, has already attracted tens of thousands of pounds
in grants from the British Government. Mr Peebles has been nominated for
an honour (alongside Burt Rutan, pioneer of cut-price space flight) at
the World Technology Awards in San Francisco next month.
- In his small workshop, Mr Peebles is working feverishly
on the latest refinement of his "fan wing" design, a proposal
for the American government to give it vertical take-off capability. If
the Pentagon goes for it, his revolutionary aircraft, which has also been
dubbed a "sky barge", could within a couple of years become an
- It is the classic story of the solitary, quietly cranky
inventor riding his hobby horses, going his own way and dreaming up something
stunningly new, precisely because he is not an expert - "not disadvantaged",
as one of his admirers put it, "by knowledge".
- Mr Peebles, an American, was born in Washington DC and
raised in Rome, where his father worked for the UN's Food and Agriculture
Organisation. After a spell in Britain, where he met his British wife,
and now his business partner, Dikla, he moved back to the Italian capital.
- Inventing stuff was Pat's passion, first under the kindly
eye of his dad, later in whatever time he could steal from his humdrum
jobs. "I have a very hard time with traditional thought processes,"
said Mr Peebles. "I was very hard to teach, did very badly at school.
I was in a daydream the whole time."
- The flame loudspeaker was an early invention: with a
tiny earphone at the base, and a flame rising above it which amplified
the sound. "It worked," he said, "but it wasn't very practical
carrying a bottle of gas with your radio."
- The spaghetti-twirling fork, another early wheeze, was
built as a birthday present for his brother. Still in working order, constructed
all in brass, it's a handsome item, though perhaps a little heavy for daily
use. "I asked my mother to lend me a nice fork," said Pat. "She
didn't know I was going to saw it in half." His other inventions include
a piano keyboard enabling all keys to be played using the same fingering,
and what may have been the first electronic planimeter, a device for calculating
the area of land, which Pat actually manufactured and sold to the Italian
government before the Japanese came up with a prettier version.
- To date, the planimeter is as close as he has come to
successfully commercialising an invention. But the fan wing aeroplane has
taken him to another dimension altogether.
- "Part of inventing," he said, "is trying
to improve things, but it's partly just being bloody-minded and wanting
to do things differently. A lot of the things that I've worked on in the
past didn't actually work out very well. But the fan wing actually worked
- "The genesis of the idea," he went on, "was
to distribute the flow of air as far as possible over the aircraft. We
take that to the extreme, sucking the air in through the front over a rather
large area, the whole width of the fan. It compresses the air as it comes
through the fan and it gets blown out at very high speed across the wing's
trailing edge." When he dreamed up the idea, he had no notion whether
it would work or not - or, indeed, whether somebody else had got there
first. "Many years ago," he said, "I worked on a new engine
which employed hot air, where air was moved from one section to another
and heated and cooled at very high speed. I was very excited about it -
but then I looked it up in the literature and found it had been developed
in 1816 by somebody else. A fellow called Stirling, it was the famous Stirling
- "I'd fully expected also with this technology to
find out that Blogs had developed it in '54 and it hadn't gone anywhere.
So I was continually surprised that nobody knew about it, and that it actually
turned out to be different." The first imperative with any invention
is to keep it secret. "You have to keep the thing totally private
before you do the patent," he said.
- "Before I deposited the first patent we were doing
tests at night time in the car park of the local supermarket. That's what
we had to do, much to the terrible embarrassment of my son, to see this
absolute nutcase of a father going into the car park with this ridiculous
machine trying to get it to fly. And of course the first times it wouldn't
- Then there was the Wright Brothers moment, when he got
it into the air and it stayed there. "It didn't go very far the first
time: it went up, flipped over and crashed. But at least it got off the
ground, we'd proved it was possible."
- The next challenge - after further tweaking had yielded
more impressive flights - was to patent the plane: enormously expensive,
as they discovered. "We suddenly found ourselves facing an enormous
bill," said his wife, Dikla. "Suddenly we had to come up with
£20,000 for the first patents, and we had no money at all."
- "I was ready to quit,&
quot; said Pat, "because I realised there was no way privately that
I could raise that much money, and I wasn't going to put the family into
that kind of debt." But then Dikla, a teacher and poet with several
books to her name, threw herself into the task. "That was when we
took the decision to collaborate," she said, "and to call round
family and friends and say we're starting a company, do you want to put
in x? The money came in and we got £21,000 the day before the deadline.
That was in 1999. Ultimately, we got the money for the patents we wanted."
- The result was Fan Wing, a British plc, with its own
website, fanwing.com, designed by their son Daniel; from its obscure origins
in a supermarket car park, the sky barge was on its way.
- Family and friends had rallied round, but for the outside
world the credibility gap continued to gape. Enter David Nicholas, an engineer
and naval architect and until recently innovations and technology counsellor
for Business Link Wessex, a man whom Dikla describes as "the inventors'
guru" and who has been the midwife for the projects of many struggling
British geniuses in recent years.
- "I met Pat two and a half years ago," Mr Nicholas
said, "through the introduction of a friend who had seen this remarkable
idea of his when they had no money." Mr Nicholas guided them through
the next phase, setting up a "virtual company" with respected
figures in engineering and aeronautics as unpaid directors to give Pat
the credibility that his one-man set-up lacked. The first fruit was a £45,000
grant from the Department of Trade and Industry. Peebles used the money
to build a much larger and more impressive working model - total wingspan
about 15 feet - developed in the wind tunnel of London's Imperial College,
and multiplying its efficiency in the process.
- "It was absolutely fabulous," Pat recalled.
"We doubled the efficiency in two weeks of wind tunnel testing. It
was very exciting because, being a new device, very small changes can make
big changes in the efficiency. People are still trying to tweak conventional
aircraft but they're lucky if they get half a per cent, maybe one per cent,
change in efficiency. But at this early stage, there was one point where
we moved a little section of the wing by 10mm and got a 30 per cent increase
- Mr Nicholas said: "An employee of British Aerospace
told me that Pat got more out of that £45,000 than British Aerospace
would have got out of £4m." Mr Nicholas said that when he first
saw a laptop video of the flight of an early model of the Fan Wing, "I
was blown away by its astonishing performance. It can go very slowly like
a helicopter, but it can carry much heavier loads. Pat doesn't like me
saying this, but I regard his plane as the fourth great breakthrough in
aeronautical science: there was Orville and Wilbur Wright, Sikorski's helicopter,
Sidney Camm's jump jet, and Pat Peebles and the fan wing." The plane's
unique attributes mean that, if and when a government finally decides to
put serious money behind it, the range of possible applications is bewilderingly
- "It's quieter than a helicopter of the equivalent
weight," Mr Peebles said. "They've been trying for years to get
permission to fly helicopters into Heathrow for commuters out of the bankers'
belt, and they never can because they make too much noise. So this could
be very useful for connecting for example the five airports around London,
a flying bus going maybe 60, 80mph, maybe 100 mph."
- Likewise, the plane could also be used to deliver aid
in Third World countries with bad roads, or to fly back and forth over
mine fields carrying heavy, ground-penetrating radar to detect land mines.
Or alternatively, it could be employed as an unmanned plane carrying heavy
weapons and firing them into people's living rooms.
- "We're not sure what our politics are here,"
added Pat. "It would feel better obviously to go for something that
would be helpful and non-aggressive - minefields, developing countries,
freight. But practically everything that's been developed started off being
developed by the military." Whoever ends up buying fan wing, Pat is
looking forward to the breakthrough - so he can go back to his daydreams.
"Running a company is very time-consuming work," he said. "There's
not much time to get one's hands dirty. It would be nice to design some
other things." A better spaghetti twirler, say.
- A BRIEF HISTORY OF FLIGHT
- By James Burleigh
- 1480s: Leonardo da Vinci made the first studies of flight
producing over 100 drawings. His Ornithopter was not built in his lifetime
but the modern helicopter is based on it.
- 1783: The Montgolfier brothers invented the first hot
air balloon, lifting a sheep, a chicken and a duck to 6,000 feet. The first
manned flight was on 21 November.
- 1799-1850: Sir George Cayley designed numerous gliders
and pioneered many aerodynamic designs, including wings and a tail to help
- 1891: German engineer Otto Lilienthal designed the first
glider which could carry an adult long distances. After more than 2,500
flights, he was killed when he lost control because of a gust of wind.
- 1891: Samuel Langley built a model of a plane, called
an "aerodrome", powered by steam. His model flew just under a
mile before running out of fuel. He got a $50,000 grant to build a full-sized
version but it was too heavy to fly and, discouraged, he gave up.
- 1894: Octave Chanute published Progress in Flying Machines,
which collated and analysed all the technical knowledge he could find about
- 1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright's powered plane, Flyer,
lifted off from Kitty Hawk to the north of Big Kill Devil Hill, at 10.35am
on 17 December. Orville piloted the plane, which weighed 605lb and travelled
120 feet in 12 seconds.
- 1909: Frenchman Louis Bleriot became the first to cross
the English Channelin a plane on 25 July. His monoplane was to become a
template for future designs.
- 1941: Sir Frank Whittle designed the jet engine. On 15
May, an experimental plane called the Gloster Pioneer made its first flight
at an air base in Coventry.
- 1969: Concorde, an Anglo-French collaboration, became
the world's first supersonic passenger airliner on 2 March. It left service
on 24 October last year.
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