Man has always been interested in the concept of flying, with many an adventurer attempting to become airborne. Around the year 400 BC, the Chinese discovered the kite, a object that could fly in the air, and they built many colorful kites for recreation, fun and decoration. More refined kites were built to test weather conditions. Kites have been a very important factor in the invention of flight, as they were the forerunners of hot air balloons and gliders.
For many centuries after the discovery of flying kites, humans have tried to fly just like birds. They built wings made out of feathers and light weight wood and attached them to their arms, but the results were disastrous. The muscles of the human arm is not like a birds and can not move with such strength.
In the 1480s Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight. He designed the Ornithopter and had over 100 drawings illustrating his theories of flight. The Ornithopter was never built in his lifetime, but it played an important role in today’s modern helicopter.
When man realized that hot air goes up and cold air comes down, new hope was born. Two brothers, Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier invented the first hot air balloon. They used the smoke from a fire to blow hot air into a silk bag. The silk bag was attached to a basket and the hot air then rose and allowed the balloon to be lighter than air. The first passengers to try out the balloon were a sheep, a duck and a rooster. The balloon ascended to a height of approximately 6,000 feet and travel about a mile. The first human passengers to test this new invention were Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent.
Around the 1800s George Cayley worked very hard studying ways that man could fly. He then designed many different versions of gliders that used the movements of the body to control. He improved his design over a period of about 50 years, changing the wings so that the air would flow over it correctly and designing a tail to help with stability. He then recognized that a fixed wing aircraft with a power system for propulsion and a tail for stability and control of the airplane would be the best way to allow man to fly.
Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer that studied aerodynamics, was the first person to design a glider that could allow a person to fly over significant distances. He wrote a book on aerodynamics, based on his studies and on the way that birds fly. The Wright Brothers used his text as a basis for their designs.
Samuel Langley, an astronomer, built a model of a plane that included a steam-powered engine, which he called an aerodrome. His model flew three-quarters of a mile before running out of fuel. He received $50,000 grant to build a full sized aerodrome, but unfortunately it was too big and crashed.
Wilbur and Orville Wright studied all the books that had been published on the subject and began to test all the early theories of flight. Eventually they built an airplane “The Flyer” with a 12 horsepower engine which lifted the aircraft from level ground, going on to invent the first successful airplane that travelled one hundred and twenty feet in twelve seconds. Future developments of aircraft were all based in some manner on the two Wright Brother’s first flight at Kitty Hawk.
In 1947 Chuck Yeager became the very first pilot to exceed the speed of sound. In 1976 the Concorde Airplane took to the airways and crossed the Atlantic in three hours.