Early advances in flight


Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer, was the first person in the world to plan and build a practical manned glider capable of flying long distances. Studying aerodynamics, he was inspired by the idea of manned flying machines and published his book in 1889 which was derived from his studies on bird flight. This very book was later used by the Wright Brothers during the building of their pioneering aircraft. Tragically, during Lilienthal’s 2,500 flight, strong winds took hold of his aircraft and he was killed upon its descent.

In 1891, inventor Samuel Langley observed an aerodrome that flew almost a mile after exhausting its fuel. This led to the realisation by the astronomer and physicist that in order for flight there needs to be power and this resulted in his putting up a power plant to a glider. This was a major contribution in the pursuit of flight research. He created a model of a plane that he called an aerodrome.

In order for Langley’s dream to be realised, he needed funds to build a full sized version and a grant of $50,000 enabled him to do just that. Disappointingly, the plane was too heavy and it inevitably crashed. Langley, who became the director of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C, decided to give up his dream of flight having suffered this major failure.

An engineer inspired by the work of Otto Lilienthal, Octave Chanute created the Herring-Chanute biplane in 1894. He put together a compilation of information from flight pioneers world-wide which was made into a book called “Progress Flying Machines”. The Wright Brothers used this book during their many flight experiments.

Then came the arrival of Orville and Wilbur Wright who spent several years studying the work of the flight pioneers and critically evaluating their theories on the working of balloons and kites. Key to this was the insight they had gained into the functions and purposes of wind, surface and flight. They used this knowledge in their experiments involving various shapes as gliders and investigated how these gliders could be controlled. This involved placing the shapes inside a wind tunnel which they often carried out in the North Carolina Outer Banks dunes. These experiments revealed the best wing shape and they set about designing an accompanying engine and mechanism that would launch the glider into flight.

First glider in flight

This happened at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903 with Orville Wright at the helm of the plane. Named the “Flyer”, it went down in history as the first heavier-than-air flight plane and when launched from the ground it travelled north of Big Kill Devil Hill in an incredible twelve seconds over a distance of 36.5 metres. Today it is exhibited in the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. It was a truly momentous occasion in aviation history.

In the time since this landmark event, there has been major advancement in flight production with the addition of flights made for the transportation of large numbers of people and cargo. The military also use many types of aircraft for their personnel, transportation of arms and in wars around the world. They could not have come about had it not been for the successful launch that day at Kitty Hawk.


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