Engineer and pioneer of unpowered flight. Born in Bath (England) of a Scottish mother, Pilcher briefly served in the Royal Navy before becoming an apprentice at the Govan ship-builders Randolph, Elder and Co. He took up a lecturing post in the University of Glasgow (1891) and proceeded to design and build gliders. His first machine, the Bat flew successfully from a hill overlooking the Firth of Clyde at Cardross. With his fourth machine, the Hawk, built at his lodgings in Hillhead in Glasgow, Pilcher was able fly for a record-breaking 228m (250 yards) from a field in Kent (England). This caused a sensation, making Pilcher the undisputed leader in the field of unpowered flight.
Pilcher was also a pioneer of powered flight. He designed and built both an aeroplane and an engine to power it. He collaborated with French-American aeronautical designer Octave Chanute, who gave Pilcher the idea of using multiple wings, and with British engineer Sir Hiram Maxim, who had designed a suitable propeller.
Pilcher arranged a demonstration of his new machine, but at the last minute his engine failed. Not wanting to disappoint the assembled party, he decided to show the Hawk once again which, by this time, he had flown successfully on many occasions. However, its structure failed and Pilcher crashed, fatally injured.
The Hawk was preserved and restored by the Museum of Flight (East Lothian) and displayed in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh from 2016. In 2003, the BBC television programme Horizon built a replica of Pilcher's aeroplane. They demonstrated it was more than capable of flying and that he could easily have beaten the Wright Brothers triumph by four years.