Man’s fascination and his desire to fly dates back when prehistoric man had observed the flight of winged creatures as illustrated in the legendary story of Daedalus and Icarus. As the legend goes, both were imprisoned by King Minos on the island of Crete. Daedalus’ plan of escape led him to create wings out of feathers and wax both for himself and his son, Icarus. This story reveals much of early man’s focus of flight which depends largely on imitating birds. But man, in different parts of history, has moved on inventing from feathers to building balloons, gliders, aircrafts and other types of flying machines.
Early recorded works of flying machines were the 9th century gliders made by Muslim Moors Armen Firman and Abbas Qasim Ibn Firnas. There were 13th century accounts of human-carrying kites by Marco Polo upon his visit in China. Leonardo da Vinci is also credited for designing a glider. Not a few of these attempts were ambitious and dangerous such as done by the Turkish scientist of the 17th century, Lagari Hasan Celebi who launched himself in a ‘rocket’ which was designed as a large cage with a conical top filled with gunpowder, as part of Ottoman Emperor Murat IV’s celebration for the birth of his daughter.
This twenty-second flight reached a height of about 300 meters, and had a successful landing in the Bosporus. Lighter-than-air flight had always been commonly associated with the aircraft during the 1900s, yet people had already been flying for about 200 years. In 1783, the first recognized human flight in a hot air balloon was invented by Montgolfier brothers, which was powered by a wood fire but was not steerable. But the first powered, controlled, lighter-than-air flight took place in 1852 with a steam engine driven craft flown in France by Henri Giffard.
It was Emanuel Swedenborg who made the observation, published in an aviation paper, that powering an aircraft through the air was the key of flying. In fact, a better understanding of flight itself is the crux of flying. Sir George Cayley began the first rigorous study of the physics of flight. His study led him to invent most of basic aerodynamics. Felix du Temple was credited for making the first successful powered flight in the history of aviation. He was able to build a large plane made of aluminum with a wingspan of 13 meters and a weight of 80 kilograms known as the “Monoplane”.
The 1880s was marked by intense study led by Otto Lilienthal, Percy Pilcher, and Octave Chanute. The first modern gliders had been built by John J. Montgomery, whose works had been recognized and became well known much later from the time it was built. Otto Lilienthal of Germany is one of the best known among the early pioneers who was responsible for promoting the idea of “jumping before you fly”. This suggests that researchers should start working with gliders first before designing a powered machine on paper and hope that it would fly.
He also recognized the importance of attaching an engine to the plane to further advance the works on aviation. Those who came after him benefited much from his studies thereby saving themselves years of trial and error. Octave Chanute soon followed who was particularly interested in solving the aircraft’s stability in flight. Percy Pilcher of the United Kingdom built working gliders and in 1899 he constructed a prototype of a powered aircraft which would have flown except that he died in a glider accident before it was even built, and his works were not remembered for many years.
Another experimenter who achieved a good degree of success was Samuel Pierpont Langley who designed and built Aerodrome No. 5. This was the first fully successful flight of an engine-powered heavier-than-air craft of a substantial size. With the initial success of Aerodrome No. 5 and its follow-on No. 6, Langley furthered his experiments on building aircrafts but proved too fragile and the design which he made was too heavy to hold itself up in the air. Two attempts of Aerodrome in 1903 ended with a crash into the water almost immediately after its launch.
Failing to gain further funding, his efforts ended. About a few weeks later, the Wright brothers succeeded in flying their aptly-named ‘Flyer’ (See “First Flights in Aviation History”). Written articles and perhaps photographs of Otto Lilienthal, Samuel Langley’s success in flying an unmanned steam-powered model aircraft, and Octave Chanute’s gliders were noted by the brothers. Wilbur even wrote a letter of request to the Smithsonian Institution for information and publications about aeronautics which kept Langley’s works (F.
Howard. “Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers”). Using on the work of Sir George Cayley, Chanute, Lilienthal, Leonardo da Vinci and Langley as a springboard, the brothers began their mechanical aeronautical experiments. The brothers further developed the technology of flight by stressing control of the aircraft rather than increased power. They developed a fundamental principle of aviation, the three-axis control which is still used today.