Some of the History of Flight

Man has always been interested taking off from the ground and becoming airborne. Around the year 400 BC, the Chinese discovered the kite, a object that could fly in the air. They built many colourful kites for recreation, fun and decoration. More refined kites were built to test weather conditions. Kites have been a very important factor to 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. When man realized that hot air goes up and cold air comes down they invented all sorts of aircraft including hot air balloons.

The Path to the Wright Brothers

The Montgolfier brothers proved in 1783 that flight was possible with balloons, but these vessels were frail and difficult to steer, and throughout the nineteenth century, inventors shifted their focus away from dirigibles to heavier-than-air craft.

In 1804, English Baronet Sir George Cayley started constructing gliders, and later designs began to resemble modern airplanes. History remembers him as the “Father of Aerial Navigation”, for his works demonstrated how to use a curved aerofoil to produce lift.

German Otto Lilienthal created and flew gliders that were the first controlled flights. He achieved over 2,000 flights in his lifetime, but he was tragically killed from injuries resulting from a glider accident in 1896.

French electrical engineer Clement Ader used a steam-powered engine to power his bat-like aircraft, the Eole. In 1890, the Eole was able to skim the ground at a height of 8 inches, for about 165 feet. France’s military invested in Ader’s Avion III, a twin-engined plane that failed to take off.

Samuel Pierpont Langley, a Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, attempted to build a craft with an advanced five-cylinder radial petrol engine. He had massive funding, and was confident he would achieve success by 1899. However, his two launches of the Aerodrome resulted in two crashes in the Potomac River. The second attempt was on December 8th, 1903, just 9 days before the Wright Brothers’ historic flight.

Wilbur and Orville Wright were bicycle shop owners from Dayton, Ohio who did not have the funding of their predecessors. They moved to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in order to use the strong winds to test their prototypes.

The problems with heavier-than-air travel were in two areas. The first was the development of a lightweight engine that was powerful enough to propel a plane. The second was creating a structure that was aerodynamically sound. In addition to solving these problems, the Wright brothers were successful for one other reason. Most prospective pilots assumed a plane would maneuver like a car, and practically fly itself. The Wright Brothers understood the necessity of the pilot constantly steering the plane while in flight, and designed controls for this purpose.

After years of glider research and field testing (including one attempt that nearly killed Wilbur), they achieved success with four test flights on December 17, 1903. The first flight lasted 12 seconds, and the last was only 59 seconds, traveling a distance of 852 ft, but it was just enough to prove that sustained flight was possible.

After the historic flight, they continued to develop their invention. Public opinion of the event was mixed, and many dismissed the Wrights’ report as “just another failed attempt at flight”. Overseas, some French aviators denounced the Wrights’ achievement as a lie, claiming that a Frenchman Alberto Santos-Dumont and his 14bis plane was first to fly. It wasn’t until 1908, at LeMans, that Wilbur proved his ability to fly as he gave the French the most impressive demonstration of flight they had ever seen.

The aviation industry literally took off after that, and boomed during the Great War.