History of Flight

The History of Flight: From Kites to Jets

The history of aviation goes back more than 2,000 years, from the earliest forms of aviation, kites and attempts at tower jumping, to supersonic flight by powered, heavier-than-air jets. 

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Around 400 BC - Flight in China

The discovery of the kite that could fly in the air by the Chinese started humans thinking about flying. Kites were used by the Chinese in religious ceremonies. They built many colorful kites for fun, also. More sophisticated kites were used to test weather conditions. Kites have been important to the invention of flight as they were the forerunner to balloons and gliders.

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Humans Try to Fly like Birds

For many centuries, humans have tried to fly just like the birds and have studied the flight of birds. Wings made of feathers or light weight wood have been attached to arms to test their ability to fly. The results were often disastrous as the muscles of the human arms are not like a birds and cannot move with the strength of a bird.

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Hero and the Aeolipile

The ancient Greek engineer, Hero of Alexandria, worked with air pressure and steam to create sources of power. One experiment that he developed was the aeolipile which used jets of steam to create rotary motion.

Hero mounted a sphere on top of a water kettle. A fire below the kettle turned the water into steam, and the gas traveled through pipes to the sphere. Two L-shaped tubes on opposite sides of the sphere allowed the gas to escape, which gave a thrust to the sphere that caused it to rotate. The importance of the aeolipile is that it marks the start of engine invention - engine created movement will later prove essential in the history of flight.

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1485 Leonardo da Vinci - The Ornithopter and the Study of Flight

Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480's. He had over 100 drawings that illustrated his theories on bird and mechanical flight. The drawings illustrated the wings and tails of birds, ideas for man-carrying machines, and devices for the testing of wings.

The Ornithopter flying machine was never actually created. It was a design that Leonardo da Vinci created to show how man could fly. The modern day helicopter is based on this concept. Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks on flight were reexamined in the 19th century by aviation pioneers.

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1783 - Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier - The Flight of the First Hot Air Balloon

The brothers, Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, were inventors of the first hot air balloon. They used the smoke from a fire to blow hot air into a silk bag. The silk bag was attached to a basket. The hot air then rose and allowed the balloon to be lighter-than-air.

In 1783, the first passengers in the colorful balloon were a sheep, rooster and duck. It climbed to a height of about 6,000 feet and traveled more than one mile.

After this first success, the brothers began to send men up in hot air balloons. The first manned flight was on November 21, 1783, the passengers were Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent.

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1799-1850's - George Cayley - Gliders

Sir George Cayley is considered the father of aerodynamics. Cayley experimented with wing design, distinguished between lift and drag, formulated the concepts of vertical tail surfaces, steering rudders, rear elevators, and air screws. George Cayley worked to discover a way that man could fly. Cayley designed many different versions of gliders that used the movements of the body to control. A young boy, whose name is not known, was the first to fly one of Cayley's gliders, the first glider capable of carrying a human.

For over 50 years, George Cayley made improvements to his gliders. Cayley changed the shape of the wings so that the air would flow over the wings correctly. Cayley designed a tail for the gliders to help with the stability. He tried a biplane design to add strength to the glider. George Cayley also recognized that there would be a need for machine power if the flight was to be in the air for a long time.

George Cayley wrote that a fixed wing aircraft with a power system for propulsion, and a tail to assist in the control of the airplane, would be the best way to allow man to fly.

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Otto Lilienthal

German engineer, Otto Lilienthal, studied aerodynamics and worked to design a glider that would fly. Otto Lilienthal was the first person to design a glider that could fly a person and was able to fly long distances.

Otto Lilienthal was fascinated by the idea of flight. Based on his studies of birds and how they fly, he wrote a book on aerodynamics that was published in 1889 and this text was used by the Wright Brothers as the basis for their designs.

After more than 2500 flights, Otto Lilienthal was killed when he lost control because of a sudden strong wind and crashed into the ground.

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1891 Samuel Langley

Samuel Langley was physicist and astronomer who realized that power was needed to help man fly. Langley conducted experiments using whirling arms and steam motors. He built a model of a plane, which he called an aerodrome, that included a steam-powered engine. In 1891, his model flew for 3/4s of a mile before running out of fuel.

Samuel Langley received a $50,000 grant to build a full sized aerodrome. It was too heavy to fly and it crashed. He was very disappointed. He gave up trying to fly. His major contributions to flight involved attempts at adding a power plant to a glider. He was also well known as the director of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.

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1894 Octave Chanute

Octave Chanute was a successful engineer who undertook the invention of airplanes as a hobby, after being inspired by Otto Lilienthal. Chanute designed several aircraft, the Herring - Chanute biplane was his most successful design and formed the basis of the Wright biplane design.

Octave Chanute published "Progress in Flying Machines" in 1894. It gathered and analyzed all the technical knowledge that he could find about aviation accomplishments. It included all of the world's aviation pioneers. The Wright Brothers used this book as a basis for much of their experiments. Chanute was also in contact with the Wright Brothers and often commented on their technical progress.

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1903 The Wright Brothers - First Flight

Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright were very deliberate in their quest for flight. First, they spent many years learning about all the early developments of flight. They completed detailed research of what other early inventors had done. They read all the literature that was published up to that time. Then, they began to test the early theories with balloons and kites. They learned about how the wind would help with the flight and how it could affect the surfaces once up in the air. 

The next step was to test the shapes of gliders much like George Cayley did when he was testing the many different shapes that would fly. They spent much time testing and learning about how gliders could be controlled. 

The Wright Brothers designed and used a wind tunnel to test the shapes of the wings and the tails of the gliders. After they found a glider shape that consistently would fly in the tests in the North Carolina Outer Banks dunes, then they turned their attention to how to create a propulsion system that would create the lift needed to fly.

The early engine that they used generated almost 12 horsepower.

The "Flyer" lifted from level ground to the north of Big Kill Devil Hill, at 10:35 a.m., on December 17, 1903. Orville piloted the plane which weighed six hundred and five pounds. 

The first heavier-than-air flight traveled one hundred twenty feet in twelve seconds. The two brothers took turns during the test flights. It was Orville's turn to test the plane, so he is the brother that is credited with the first flight.

Humankind was now able to fly! During the next century, many new airplanes and engines were developed to help transport people, luggage, cargo, military personnel and weapons. The 20th century's advances were all based on this first flight at Kitty Hawk by the American Brothers from Ohio.

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Wright Brothers - Birds of a Feather

In 1899, after Wilbur Wright  had written a letter of request to the Smithsonian Institution for information about flight experiments, the Wright Brothers designed their first aircraft: a small, biplane glider flown as a kite to test their solution for controlling the craft by wing warping. Wing warping is a method of arching the wingtips slightly to control the aircraft's rolling motion and balance.

The Wright Brothers spent a great deal of time observing birds in flight. They noticed that birds soared into the wind and that the air flowing over the curved surface of their wings created lift. Birds change the shape of their wings to turn and maneuver. They believed that they could use this technique to obtain roll control by warping, or changing the shape, of a portion of the wing.

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Wright Brothers - Gliders

Over the next three years, Wilbur and his brother Orville would design a series of gliders which would be flown in both unmanned (as kites) and piloted flights. They read about the works of Cayley, and Langley, and the hang-gliding flights of Otto Lilienthal. They corresponded with Octave Chanute concerning some of their ideas. They recognized that control of the flying aircraft would be the most crucial and hardest problem to solve.

Following a successful glider test, the Wrights built and tested a full-size glider. They selected Kitty Hawk, North Carolina as their test site because of its wind, sand, hilly terrain and remote location.

In 1900, the Wrights successfully tested their new 50-pound biplane glider with its 17-foot wingspan and wing-warping mechanism at Kitty Hawk, in both unmanned and piloted flights.

In fact, it was the first piloted glider. Based upon the results, the Wright Brothers planned to refine the controls and landing gear, and build a bigger glider.

In 1901, at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the Wright Brothers flew the largest glider ever flown, with a 22-foot wingspan, a weight of nearly 100 pounds and skids for landing.

However, many problems occurred: the wings did not have enough lifting power; forward elevator was not effective in controlling the pitch; and the wing-warping mechanism occasionally caused the airplane to spin out of control. In their disappointment, they predicted that man will probably not fly in their lifetime.

In spite of the problems with their last attempts at flight, the Wrights reviewed their test results and determined that the calculations they had used were not reliable. They decided to build a wind tunnel to test a variety of wing shapes and their effect on lift. Based upon these tests, the inventors had a greater understanding of how an airfoil (wing) works and could calculate with greater accuracy how well a particular wing design would fly. They planned to design a new glider with a 32-foot wingspan and a tail to help stabilize it.

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Wright Brothers - Inventing the Flyer

During 1902, the brothers flew numerous test glides using their new glider. Their studies showed that a movable tail would help balance the craft and the Wright Brothers connected a movable tail to the wing-warping wires to coordinate turns. With successful glides to verify their wind tunnel tests, the inventors planned to build a powered aircraft.

After months of studying how propellers work the Wright Brothers designed a motor and a new aircraft sturdy enough to accommodate the motor's weight and vibrations. The craft weighed 700 pounds and came to be known as the Flyer.

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Wright Brothers - First Manned Flight

The brothers built a movable track to help launch the Flyer. This downhill track would help the aircraft gain enough airspeed to fly. After two attempts to fly this machine, one of which resulted in a minor crash, Orville Wright took the Flyer for a 12-second, sustained flight on December 17, 1903. This was the first successful, powered, piloted flight in history.

In 1904, the first flight lasting more than five minutes took place on November 9. The Flyer II was flown by Wilbur Wright.

In 1908, passenger flight took a turn for the worse when the first fatal air crash occurred on September 17. Orville Wright was piloting the plane. Orville Wright survived the crash, but his passenger, Signal Corps Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, did not. The Wright Brothers had been allowing passengers to fly with them since May 14, 1908.

In 1909, the U.S. Government bought its first airplane, a Wright Brothers biplane, on July 30.

The airplane sold for $25,000 plus a bonus of $5,000 because it exceeded 40 mph.

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Wright Brothers - Vin Fiz

In 1911, the Wrights' Vin Fiz was the first airplane to cross the United States. The flight took 84 days, stopping 70 times. It crash-landed so many times that little of its original building materials were still on the plane when it arrived in California.

The Vin Fiz was named after a grape soda made by the Armour Packing Company.

Patent Suit

That same year, the U.S. Court has decided in favor of the Wright Brothers in a patent suit against Glenn Curtiss. The issue concerned lateral control of aircraft, for which the Wrights maintained they held patents. Although Curtiss's invention, ailerons (French for "little wing"), was far different from the Wrights' wing-warping mechanism, the Court determined that use of lateral controls by others was "unauthorized" by patent law.