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Emir Öngüner

Inventor of Detachable Aircraft Cabin: Tunisian-Turkish Engineer Prince Ibrahim Ben-Ayad (1881-1958)

Issue 13 - 2022
Inventor of Detachable Aircraft Cabin:  Tunisian-Turkish Engineer Prince Ibrahim Ben-Ayad (1881-1958)

In the 21st century, the aviation industry is working intensively on new engineering solutions with a focus on safety. However, it is quite interesting that there is no information about the genius idea of a Turkish engineer in the 1930s. The inventor was engineer Emir Ibrahim Ben-Ayad, a Tunisian Prince born and grew up in the Ottoman Empire.1

Going by the name of Ibrahim Ayad in Turkey, he belonged to the Ben-Ayad family of Tunisian nobility and the Egyptian Kavalalı dynasty.2 His father was Prince Mahmoud Ben-Ayad, a financier close to Mustafa Haznedar Pasha, Prime Minister of the Principality of Tunisia. 1850, Mahmoud Ben-Ayad defected to France for some political reasons. After a while, he became a French citizen, moved to Istanbul in 1857 and engaged in commercial activities. He allegedly owned high value real estate in France.3 His mother was Princess Rukiye Hatice Hanım, the daughter of Mustafa Fazıl Pasha from the Kavalalı dynasty in Egypt.4

Ibrahim Ayad was born in Istanbul in 1881. No detailed biography of him is available. He completed both his high school and undergraduate degrees in France. Which institutions he worked for after graduating are unknown. The information regarding his technical studies was first seen during the last year of World War I. He was granted a patent by the German Imperial Patent Office for an automatic-electric ship log in 1918 (Selbsttätiges elektrisches Schiffslot, No: 343744, 22.09.1918). His residence address was listed as Istanbul-Pera in the patent paperwork.

In 1934, Ibrahim Ayad was introduced in the Turkish press as an inventor in the field of aviation. With the U.S. patent (No: 1.923.963) he received on August 22, 1933, under the name of "Aerial safety device", he obtained legal protection for his idea of parachute rescue by detaching the cabin from the main body of an aircraft in case of danger. In the preamble of the patent text, he noted that none of the studies up to that time had been an effective effort to safely land the cabin to the ground:

''As a result of the many drawbacks that are inherent in individual parachutes, various devices of aerial safety have been imagined, such as detachable bodies and nacelles provided with parachutes. However, none of the known methods for ensuring the collective landing of the passengers and pilot of a disabled aircraft is capable of protecting the safety apparatus itself against the considerable risks of breaking which will certainly result from a collision, or shocks, or sudden frictions between the detachable body or nacelle and the rear part of the fuselage, and the control planes, when said body or nacelle is being detached...''

The mechanism he created was first described as follows in an interview with the Cumhuriyet newspaper on June 23 and 24, 1934:

''...The invention of Mr. Ibrahim, an engineer who is proud to be at the same class as Gazi Mustafa Kemal at Turkish military academy, is a parachute to save the cabins of crashed aircraft from collapse... These large parachutes, which will be attached to the cabins with a special device, can be easily used by pilots. In the event of an accident, the pilot will activate the mechanism to open the parachute, and thus the cabin will be landed on the ground slowly by the parachute, together with the passengers inside the cabin...'' 

İbrahim Ayad, representing Turkey at the International Congress on Air Navigation held in Paris on December 10-23, 1930, stated that the congress's main focus was on flight safety and that he presented his invention there. Ayad tested his design in Paris on September 20, 1931, utilizing state-owned facilities as part of an agreement with the French Ministry of Aviation. The innovation was examined on a small-scale prototype for three years before the ministry recognized it as an invention. Aerodynamic tests were conducted in the wind tunnel at the Institut Saint-Cyr and firing tests were carried out on vehicles of the military balloon detachment at Chalais-Meudon. The patent rights were transferred to France provided that the test costs would be covered by the French government.

When asked why he transferred the invention's rights to France rather than Turkey, Ayad responded as follows:

“The French Air Ministry's Research Division offered to support the execution of my idea's scientific experiments, but in exchange, they requested that I give the French government the exclusive right to use my invention in France. Three years ago, I would not have been able to conduct these studies in Turkey because our country did not then have the necessary scientific laboratories.”

Ayad traveled to Germany in 1937 upon the invitation of Nuri Demirağ, who had started to establish a private aircraft workshop in Turkey, and they both visited the aviation industry institutions in Germany. He shared his findings as a series of four articles in Cumhuriyet newspaper. The following are the headlines: 

• Competition of countries in aircraft construction (24.03.1937)

• Significant advances in aircraft construction (29.03.1937)

• Can we build fighter aircraft in our country? (08.05.1937)

• The first thing to do when establishing heavy industry in the country (28.06.1937)

In the first three articles, he focused on Germany, emphasizing arguments such as the state of the aircraft industry in Europe, innovations in engine technologies and a qualified workforce. In the final article, the path Turkey should follow was explained:

''The first thing to be done in establishing heavy industry in the country is to raise highly skilled and experienced workers. Only in this way will it be possible for us to build powerful and valuable fighter aircraft together with their engines in a short period of time.”

What Ayad mentioned in 1937 regarding technicians and workers employment is still relevant in 2022:

...Building impressive factories alone will never be enough for the industrial development of a country. In order for a factory to operate under economic conditions and produce valuable goods, it is not enough for its equipment to be flawless and even for the scientists who manage it to be highly specialized. The expertise and talent of the manufacturing workers and craftsmen determine the likelihood of success in this path…

...An engineer who does not have skilled craftsmen and workers under his supervision cannot perform any useful work in the sphere of operation. The main reason we haven't been able to reap the full benefits of the specialists we brought here from Europe at such expense is that we don't have enough people that are capable of carrying out the plans they have developed…

...In our opinion, the most beneficial action we can take in this regard is to establish a vocational school with the feature of a small factory fully outfitted with all necessary tools in each of our provinces.

Offering a rightful solution, Ayad also provided interesting stats from Europe. According to Ayad, there were no vocational schools in Turkey at those times to train the necessary number of technicians and laborers. 18 million of Germany's 22 million workers were employed by industrial entities. This figure was 16 million in the UK and 13 million in France. Turkey's population in 1935 was 16 million, therefore the disparity between its employment potential and that of industrialized western countries is obvious.

İbrahim Ayad, who also worked as a teacher at the THK flight academy Türkkuşu, published the first technical book on aviation in Turkish in 1939. The book titled "Aerodynamics" consists of the following subtitles:

• Physical Properties of Air

• Practical Aerodynamics

• Load-carrying Structural Components

• Aerodynamic Institutes

• Balance and Control of the Aircraft

• Propeller

• Aircraft Engines 

• Theory of Flight

The president of the THK, Fuat Bulca, personally asked Ibrahim Ayad to teach aerodynamics at the Türkkuşu Flight Academy in 1938, according to the book's foreword. Ayad chose to write a book that served as an overview of his lectures as he believed that every pilot candidate should be familiar with the science of aerodynamics. He also added that up to that point, Turkey had not produced any books on aerodynamics.

A brief article titled "The National Necessity and Benefits of Aerodynamic Institutes" took place following the foreword. According to Ayad, Turkey still lacked a wind tunnel, which prevented real progress in the scientific field of aviation from being made:

“...The principles regarding the construction of an airplane are based not only on projects, but also on some moderate experiments carried out in the tunnels and laboratories of aviation institutes. For this reason, countries that do not have an aeronautical institute lack the privilege of building a national prototype of an airplane and are unable to contribute in any manner, no matter its effectiveness, to the advancement and development of aeronautics on a global scale.

All formal licenses and permits provided to builders by the technical departments of the government in countries that have excelled in aviation are based on the results of experiments conducted at aerodynamic institutes. This demonstrates that no advancement in aviation can be realized without the practical and scientific involvement of an aerodynamic institute.”

The newspapers at the time also promoted Ayad's book. The book was published by the Cumhuriyet Printing House in Istanbul and cost 200 kurus. It was recommended to anyone interested in aviation. 

The ideas of Ibrahim Ayad, who passed away on December 9, 1958, in Istanbul, should be considered in the context of the conditions of the time. The observations made by Ayad still hold true in 2022. He correctly analyzed that a country without experimental infrastructure and a technician class would not be able to advance in aviation and any other industrial field. Unfortunately, Turkey lagged behind in terms of facilities and technical education. The first academy to train engineers in the field of aviation was opened in 1941. The foundations of the first wind tunnel were laid in 1944, but it was not finished even until the 1950s. There is no historical research on the steps taken to train technicians.

The statements of Ayad that have been outlined above help us comprehend the causes of the failure of Turkey's early Republican aviation efforts. It should be noted once more that the detachable cabin airplane's inventor is Turkish, although all prototype development was completed outside of Turkey due to technical limitations. It is crucial to remember Ibrahim Ayad and his ideas in the history of Turkish aviation, which will undoubtedly serve as a major source of inspiration for next generations 

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