The Same Man Invented Autopilot And The Mile High Club 100 Years Ago

On this date (June 18th) in 1914, autopilot was demonstrated for the first time on an aircraft, becoming one of the most important innovations to the cockpit in history. Its inventor, is also known for founding a "club" that many have aspired to join over the past century, as well.

American pilot Lawrence Sperry was the last performer in the Concours de la Securité en Aéroplane (Airplane Safety Competition) being held on the banks of the Seine River. The competition, which included 57 other planes. He took to the air in his Curtiss C-2 biplane, which was specially equipped with a gyroscopic stabilizer, with the purpose of maintaining stability and control. His father, Elmer had developed the gyrocompass, an innovation which had been installed on several American warships. Lawrence took his dad's idea and modified it to meet the needs of maintaining the 3 flight axes (pitch, roll and yaw).


Sperry flew down the Seine while the firemen's band played "The Star-Spangled Banner." he astonished the crowd by holding both of his hands high over his head. The crowd shouted things such as "Extraordinaire! Remarquable! Formidable!" On his next pass, his mechanic, Emil Cachin got out and walked about 7 feet out on the right wing on the plane while Sperry once again help up his hands. This not only proved the plane was still pilotless, it proved the gyroscope could correct the roll caused by the change in the plane's balance. This time, the band struck up "La Marseillaise" - the French National Anthem.

Sperry was awarded 50,000 francs ($10,000) as a prize and he appeared on the front pages of many European newspapers. Here in the U.S. however, the New York Times buried the story on page 6, eight days after the fact. The paper remarked: "Of stability commonly understood, no heavier than air flight vehicles will ever have even as much as that dreadfully fragile monster, the dirigible."

Since its early days, autopilot has allowed pilots to focus on more important tasks such as navigation, and dropping bombs by hand (in the video above). Now that pilots are flying much longer stints, it's used more often as a relief mechanism to sit back from the controls during long stretches at cruising altitude.

Sperry landing a biplane in front of the U.S. Capitol

Lawrence Sperry was one of America's first licensed pilots, receiving Federal Aeronautics Pilot License number 11 from the Aero Club of America on October 15, 1913. It's questionable whether Sperry is more famous for his invention of the autopilot, or an act in which he engaged while using it than could have gotten him killed.

In November of 1916, Sperry who was a known playboy, was giving a flying lesson to a New York socialite named Mrs. Waldo Polk, whose husband was supporting the war effort in France by driving ambulances. The legend says that during the flight of the Curtiss flying boat, the autopilot somehow became disengaged, plunging Sperry and Mrs, Polk into South Bay. They were found naked by duck hunters. Sperry insisted that the force of the crash is what had caused them to lose all of their clothes, but to this day, he is credited as the founding member of the Mile High Club.

He died at the young age of 31, after his plane went down while crossing the English Channel. He had 23 patents to his name, all relating to aviation safety. I guess it seems like an obvious thing to invent, for a guy who was known for being a bit of a reckless, but not wreck-less flyer.


Top photo: Lawrence Sperry in a 1923 photo, via Getty Images

Source: Century of Flight

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