Humans, as a species, have always wanted to fly. The legends and stories of many cultures throughout time testify to this. People in times long gone studied birds, thinking that we too could fly by flapping crudely made wood and cloth wings. In this essay, we’ll take a look at the beginnings of human flight, starting with the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci, and ending with the flight of the Wright brothers, with a bit on other innovators of flight.
In the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci, a genius of the Renaissance, believed that a person could fly by flapping wings. He once wrote, “There is in man [the ability] to sustain himself by the flapping of wings.” Later in his life, he designed many devices which he believed could be used to fly. From his many sketchbooks, the only truly promising design was a screw-like propeller which foreshadowed the helicopters of the future. It is believed that he never built any of his designs, which is probably a good thing, considering the fact that many (if not all.) simply weren’t aerodynamic, or would have been too heavy to actually leave the ground (R. G. Grant, 2007).
In 1670, many years after Leonardo da Vinci had died, Italian Jesuit Father Francesco de Lana proposed the idea of an airship which would be lifted by vacuum-filled spheres. He suggested that such a vehicle could be used to bomb enemy cities or land troops. Surprisingly enough, it couldn’t be built, but it did point the way to the first successful human flight (R. G. Grant, 2007).
De Lana’s goal was to create a machine lighter than air, and although this could not be done with vacuum spheres, It could be done by way of a large balloon filled with hot air. This was achieved by the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Entienne, who in 1783 sent up a hot air balloon which contained a duck, a rooster, and a sheep. The first manned flight followed on November 21. Despite balloons being a means of flight, they weren’t all that practical. Once you floated up in one, you would be at the mercy of the winds. It wasn’t until 1852 that the first controlled powered balloon, also known as an airship, would be demonstrated (R. G. Grant, 2007).
Twenty-seven years later, in 1809, Sir George Cayley would publish a paper, On Aerial Navigation which contained the results of his study of aerodynamics. He would go on to design the first successful glider to carry a human being, and later in his life, he would invent a forerunner to the bicycle wheel and the caterpillar tractor. George Cayley’s research would provide a key stepping stone on the path to flight. (Crouch, 2019).
Starting in the 1870s, Otto Lilienthal began to study the forces operating on airfoils in a jet of air. In 1889, he published the results of his research. Over the course of his life, he designed 16 different gliders, all of which he flew himself. He flew over 2000 times, The last being in 1896 when due to strong winds his glider was knocked out of control and he crashed. He passed away the next day, on August 10 (Gray, 2013).
Otto’s death wasn’t for nothing though, because when Orville and Wilbur Wright read about his glider crash in 1896, it sparked their interest in flight. They realized that for a mechanically powered glider to fly successfully, it would need wings to generate lift, a propulsion system, and a way to control it while in flight. In 1899, they would begin experiments with wing warping as a means of control. They used a small kite to experiment on, and after realizing that the warping could make a plane glide up, down, left, or right, they built a full-size biplane and took it to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for testing. The plane generated less lift than expected, so it was mostly flown as a kite to gather data. Later, they built a bigger plane which was 290 square feet in area. It was flown 50 to 100 times in the July and August of 1901, the longest flight covering 400 feet, but the plane did not fly as far as the calculations predicted. Realizing that the problem was due to relying on the faulty data published by their predecessors, the Wright brothers built a wind tunnel to gather their own data. After testing around 100 to 200 models, they had enough information to construct a third biplane. They tested it in the September and October of 1902. They flew it around 700 to 1000 times, and it flew just as the calculations predicted. Besides gathering valuable information, they completed their control system (Crouch, 2019).
With most of the control and aerodynamic problems behind them, the Wright brothers started working on a powered biplane. They designed twin propeller blades to help generate lift and started to build their plane. They spent several weeks building, testing and repairing the machine. Finally, on December 14th, Wilbur Wright attempted to fly the plane, but it stalled and the front was damaged. The repairs and the wait for good weather took a few days, but finally, on December 17, they were ready. Orville made the first flight, flying 120 feet and staying airborne for 12 seconds. On the fourth attempt, Wilbur flew a distance of 852 feet for 59 seconds (Crouch, 2019). The Wright brothers may or may not have known it at the time, but they had opened the door to the future of powered flight.
To conclude this essay, I’ll say this; Flight certainly has had a turbulent history. We’ve come a long way from the wooden wings and rickety biplanes of the past. What seemed impossible in the past has now become outdated to us. Hundreds of years ago, could Da Vinci have possibly imagined the space missions of the future? Did the Wright brothers, after the flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, know that they had opened the door to powered flight? We may never know the answers to these questions. All we know is that nothing is permanent, the impossible of today could be the possible of tomorrow.
(R. G. Grant. (2007) Flight, the Complete History. New York, United States: DK Publishing.)
(Tom D. Crouch. (2019) Wright Brothers. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wright-brothers)
(Carroll Gray. (2013) Otto Lilienthal. Retrieved from www.flyingmachines.org/lilthl.html)
(Crouch, D. Tom. (2019) Sir George Cayley. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sir-George-Cayley)
This essay is a finished work from our 4-week Essay Series.