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History & Heritage: Planophere Celebrates its 150th Anniversary

By Dr. Dick Hallion, Daedalian Honorary Member #50043

Thursday August 18, 2021 marks the 150th Anniversary of the first flight of a rubber-band-powered model airplane, a milestone in aviation, indeed world, history.

Called a “Planophore,” it was first flown in front of numerous witnesses in the Tuileries gardens in Paris on Friday, 18 August 1871 by the son of a French Navy admiral, Alphonse Pénaud. 

It had a long 20-inch dowel body, an elegant 18-inch wing, and small tail surfaces. Twisted rubber cords running from the nose of the dowel to a bearing at the rear spun a large pusher propeller. 

That day, Pénaud wound the prop through two hundred forty revolutions, held the model at head-height, and let it go. It subsequently flew forty meters (approximately 131 feet), in eleven seconds.

Pénaud’s flight demonstrated that a full-size powered airplane could fly, something many so-called experts doubted, provided that it had a powerful-enough engine and some method of control for the pilot. 

Those challenges were elegantly solved by the Wright Brothers with their Kitty Hawk Flyer, flown four times on December 17, 1903. Coincidentally, on its first flight, it covered one hundred twenty-six feet in twelve seconds, virtually the same distance and duration the Planophore achieved in the Tuileries gardens.

The rubber-band-powered model airplane inspired millions of young people who became the aviators and engineers who gave us the aerospace world of today.  It all started with Alphonse Pénaud one hundred fifty years ago.