InTrans / Aug 25, 2014

An abbreviated history of flight

Go! Magazine

Jet in sunlight skyposted on August 25, 2014

Dreams of flying have existed since long before the Wright brothers’ historic flight in 1903. Wilber and Orville Wright may have piloted the first powered flight, but they were not the first ones to achieve flight.

Greek Mythology

One of the earliest attempts at human flight, at least in Greek mythology, is the story of Icarus. Icarus is the son of master craftsman Daedalus, who was said to have built the labyrinth that imprisoned the legendary Minotaur. In an attempt to escape Greece, he made wings for himself and his son out of feathers, wax, wood, and twine. However, Icarius, caught up in the thrill of flight, flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, which caused his wings to lose its feathers. Icarius then plummeted to his death, into the sea.

Chinese Influences

The first people known to have taken to the skies were the Chinese between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. However, instead of flying, they used massive kites made with bamboo frames. These frames supposedly allowed people to be hoisted into the air. There are many stories and accounts of these kites in China and Japan, but no substantiated evidence has been found to support them.


It was not until the sixteenth century that scientists began to study and experiment in aeronautics, or the science of travel through the air. Much of what we know about aeronautics actually came from researchers like Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Christiaan Huygens, and Galileo Galilei, who experimented and contributed to an understanding of the relationship between surface area and liquid density. You may be asking yourself, “What does liquid density have to do with flying?” Actually, because gases act very similarly to liquids, many of the principles these researchers developed were later used by researchers of aeronautics.

Replica of the “Wright Flyer” owned by the Smithsonian.
Replica of the “Wright Flyer” owned by the Smithsonian. Photo from NASA.

Notable flights

Ballooning has been in existence for more than two hundred years, starting in 1783 when Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes took the first manned hot-air balloon flight in France. Hot-air balloons lacked any real control and became more of a curiosity and tool for study rather than a practical means of transportation.

Otto Lilienthal’s glider
Otto Lilienthal’s glider. Photo from NASA.

Around the same time, Daniel Bernoulli, Leonhard Euler, and John Smeaton experimented heavily on the relationship between pressure and velocity (speed). Their works, along with those of earlier scientists, were vital for later engineers to calculate aerodynamic forces. One of the greatest contributors was Sir George Cayley, known as the “Father of Aerial Navigation.” His research led him to create and fly the first glider in 1804. His later contributions helped to establish the “fixed-wing” design of modern airplanes (as opposed to the flapping of most other devices at the time). In the 1890s, Otto Lilienthal, a German scientist and pioneer of aviation, further confirmed and elaborated on Cayley’s work. Lilienthal’s research explored the effects of wing size on flight and he completed almost 2,000 flights between 1890 and his death in 1896. His research was later used by the Wright brothers as they designed their airplane.

The Wright Brothers

What made the Wright brothers stand out were two things:

  1. An internal combustion engine
  2. The three-axis control system The three-axis control system relates to pitch (the up/down angle), roll (the tilt of the craft), and yaw (turning left or right).

Earlier flights could only control pitch and yaw, which was not enough to keep the craft stable. The Wright brothers experimented extensively to determine how to stabilize the aircraft more effectively. It was after watching birds in flight, they noticed that birds did not turn like cars do. Instead, they noticed that birds “banked,” which gave the brothers the idea of applying it to their experiments. It would not be until 1904, after adopting the use of an engine, that they would make their historic flight and pave the way for an explosion of aircraft designs in the early 1900s.

By Brandon Hallmark, Go! Staff Writer

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