Fabulous and Foolhardy Flyers I
Reichelt, perhaps the last of the "birdmen,"
attempted a flight off the Eiffel Tower in Paris in
1912. His parachute-like suit failed and he plumeted
some 190 feet to his death in five seconds.
Part 1: Flight from Icarus to Orville
In Greek myth the great inventor Daedalus and
his son, Icarus, escaped from imprisonment on the island of
Crete by making wings of feathers held together with wax. The
flight was successful until Icarus, ignoring his father's warning,
flew too high and too close to the sun. The wax holding together
his wings melted and he fell into the sea where he drowned.
Thus one of man's earliest tales about an attempt
to conquer the sky ended in tragedy: A warning about the foolishness
of trying to ascend to the realm of the gods. But while this
cautionary tale was being told by wandering poets in the courts
in Greece, on the other side of the world the Chinese were experimenting
with the first kites. Devices thast would later be key in helping
man to learn how to eventually become a master of the sky...
Man's fascination at watching birds take flight
and his desire to join them started before Icarus and continued
throughout history. According to legend, King Kay Kavus, who
ruled Persia in 1500 BC, tried to fly by constructing a throne
of wood and gold to which he attached eagles that had been specially
trained to increase their strength. Above the heads of the eagles
were dangled legs of mutton. As the hungry birds flapped their
wings to reach the food, they carried the King's throne up into
More serious attempts at flight came later. In
852 AD the Moor, Armen Firman, constructed a voluminous cloak
with the intention of using the garment like wings to glide.
Jumping from a tower in Cordoba, Spain, Firman survived with
only minor injuries because his outfit caught enough air in
its folds to break his fall. While trying to fly Firman had
invented a primitive version of the parachute.
Other "birdmen" were not so lucky. In
875 AD an Andalusian physician named Abbas ibn-Firnas "covered
himself with feathers for the purpose," and according to
one account, "attached a couple of wings to his body, and
getting on an eminence, flung himself into the air." Witnesses
said that ibn-Firna's glide was successful, but the landing
was hard. "...not knowing that birds when they alight come
down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one."
Ibn-Firnas severely injured his back.
da Vinci's sketch of a primitive helicopter, or "airscrew."
The great Leonardo da Vinci, the genius of the
Renaissance whose talents were spread over the fields of art,
music, architecture, mathematics, engineering and science, became
obsessed with the problem of flight. He spent the last forty
years of his life filling notebooks with thoughts on aeronautics
and over 500 sketches of flying machines, including plans for
a primitive helicopter.
Man began to make more progress toward flight
in 1670 when Francesco Lana de Terzi, an Italian Jesuit, proposed
one of the first lighter-than-air vehicles. Terzi had studied
the science of atmospheric pressure and realized that a container
with a vacuum inside could be lighter than the air it displaced
causing it to rise from the ground much the way air rises as
bubbles in water. Terzi then described a ship lifted by four
globes from which the air had been pumped out. In theory, Terzi's
idea might have worked, but the material he chose to make the
globes from, thin copper foil, would have never withstood the
pressure of the outside air. They would have collapsed before
his ship would have made it an inch off the ground.
A century later the brothers Joseph and Etienne
Montgolfier applied the same principles to create the first
hot air balloon. The Montgolfiers were papermakers from the
French town of Annonay. Hot air expands, making it less dense
than the surrounding cool air. The Montgolfiers had noticed
that for this reason a paper bag filled with hot air would rise.
During a public demonstation they were able to send a large
paperlined linen balloon filled with hot air up to 6,000 feet
and across the countryside for a mile. This was followed by
the the first human lighter-than-air flight on November 21,
1783, when two volunteers rode a Montgolfier balloon for 25
minutes over Paris.
As exciting as the discovery of lighter-than-air
flight was, it didn't seem to offer the speed or maneuverability
that man envied so much in birds. So work on heavier-than-air
flight continued, though in some ways the ideal of the bird
was misleading. Most early aeronautical inventors designed their
craft as a type of machine now known as a ornithoper. An ornithoper
is a device designed to fly by flapping its wings like a bird.
Flying machines, when they did come, used a simpler and more
efficient way of producing the forward velocity needed for flight:
the air-screw or as it later became known, the propeller.
Early designers were hampered by the lack of a
way to power their machines. Most plans depended on human muscle
to provide the energy to flap the mechanical wings. However,
in the 17th century, Robert Hooke, a distinguished mathematician,
physicist and inventor, calculated that man did not possess
the physical strength to power artificial wings (indeed a third
of a bird's body weight may be his flying muscles). That meant
some additional, external source of power would be needed. Hooke's
thinking was correct for his time, though in 1977, through the
use of modern technology, the first human-powered flight finally
did occur when a lightweight pedal-powered plane named the Gossamer
Condor flew for a distance of slightly greater than a mile.
Sir George Cayley perhaps did more than anyone
else to set the stage for the first heavier-than-air flight.
Cayley was born in 1773 in Yorkshire, England. Growing up in
a wealthy family, Cayley was able to pursue his interest in
science for most of his life. His first work in the area of
flight was triggered by the Montgolfier's balloon. He carefully
studied how birds flew and came to understand their aeronautics
better than anyone else at that time. Cayley also came to realize
that any successful flying machine would have to conquer the
problems of lift, control and propulsion, issues that most other
aeronautical inventors at the time did not seem to comprehend.
Cayley's work reached a peak in 1853 when the
80-year-old inventor had his coachmen fly what must have been
a primitive glider. The flight was successful, but the man jumped
out of Cayley's device upon landing and declared, "Please,
Sir George, I wish to give notice. I was hired to drive, not
Aerial Transit Company
this illustration of the British Aeronautical Society's
1868 flying machine exhibition, a redesigned three-winged
model of the Aerial Steam Carriage hangs over the London's
Crystal Palace Hall.
The fact that the flying machine had not been
invented did not prevent the first airline from being incorporated.
William Henson and John Stringfellow launched the Aerial Transit
Company. Henson had come up with a design for an "Aerial
Steam Carriage" in 1840 but didn't have enough capital
to build it. By selling shares in the airline they hoped to
raise the money they needed. Colorful pictures of the machine
appeared in journals like The Illustrated London News,
and L'Illustration, a French publication. Pictures of
this nonexistent craft showing it plying the skies over exotic
locations like China and Egypt also wound up on souvenir items.
Finally the tremendous publicity caused a backlash and investors
backed out. Henson appealed for help from Cayley, but Cayley
was unwilling to give anything but moral support. Eventually
the Aerial Transit Company crashed and went out of business.
However, the images of the flying machine steaming across the
skies stimulated the minds of many other would-be aeronautical
It also stimulated Cayley's mind. Cayley knew
that Henson's device as pictured would have at least two problems,
First, a steam engine as they existed at the time would be too
heavy to use on an airplane. Second, the large single set of
wings necessary to give the Aerial Steam Carriage enough lift
would be ripped apart by the stress flight would put upon them.
Cayley realized that the way to solve this problem was to have
two or three shorter wings placed one above the other with enough
space between them to allow the free passage of air. This multiwing
design was adopted by a number of later aviation inventors,
including the Wright Brothers.
In 1868 the fledgling British Aeronautical
Society decided to sponsor an exhibition of flying machines
at London's Crystal Palace. None of the machines on display
had yet been able to carry a human being aloft in a powered,
heavier-than-air flight, but the display seemed to capture the
imagination of the public. Hanging high about the exhibition
was a new version of the Aerial Steam Carriage redesigned by
Stringfellow to have three stacked wings. The plane never flew,
but as before excited many imaginations.
In the 1890's Hiram Maxim, an American inventor
who had resettled in Britain, became interested in flying machines.
Hiram had already invented a 600 hundred round-per-minute machine
gun in 1884 that had made him rich and famous. Then Maxim concentrated
his efforts on the problem of powering a plane. "The motor
is the chief thing to be considered," wrote Maxim in a
1892 issue of The Cosmopolitan. "Scientists have
long said, 'Give us a motor and we will soon give you a successful
Maxim solved his motor problem by building an
enormous biplane with two 180 horsepower steam engines each
driving propellers 18-feet across. The craft was almost 200-feet
long with a wingspan of 107 feet and weighed, with its 3-man
crew, an incredible 8000 pounds. To test his invention Maxim
built a special track. The track was designed much like that
of a modern roller coaster. One set of rails supported the flying
machine from underneath while a second set above prevented it
from lifting more than a few inches off the track. With this
system Maxim was able to run tests with the machine with no
fear that it would get out of control and crash.
Journalists that visited Maxim's test site reported
that the huge biplane roaring down its track was an awesome
sight. Once Maxim was in the cockpit and the propellers were
up to speed he would yell, "Let go!" and then according
to a reporter "A rope was pulled, the machine shot forward
like a railway train, and, with the big wheels whirling, the
steam hissing, and the waste pipes puffing and gurgling it flew
over the eighteen hundred feet of track in much less time than
it takes to tell it."
Despite its power and speed Maxim's machine was
uncontrollable. On its final test run an upper rail snapped
and the giant machine flew free for a few seconds. Maxim cut
the engines and the device crashed to the ground never to rise
If nothing else Maxim's experiments showed that
a powerful engine could lift a very heavy object. The final
crash also demonstrated that any successful flying machine would
require a means of controlling and guiding it in flight.
Eole flew, but not as high as this illustration
from 1891 suggests. It climbed to eight inches for 165
feet, but lacked good flight control.
The first machine ever to leave the ground under
its own power was built by Clement Adler. A distinguished electrical
engineer, Adler got the flying bug and in 1882 he started construction
of a flying machine. The result was a bat-like monoplane driven
by an exceptionally-light steam engine. In a test on October
9th, 1890, Adler apparently was able to get the machine, which
he had named "The Eole," to raise itself above the
ground some eight inches for a distance of 165 feet. But like
Maxim's, Adler's machine lacked control and was incapable of
sustained flight. Later attempts by Adler to build a more sophisticated
flying machine for the French military failed, though Adler
later was to claim he'd made flights with it as high as 1,000
Perhaps the man who knew the most about flight
control as the 19th century entered its final decade was Otto
Lilienthal. Lilienthal was a German engineer who had dreamed
of building a flying machine since he was a boy. Lilienthal
built a series of gliders that he tested from a hill he had
constructed near his home. The gliders were similar to modern
"hang gliders" and would be launched by Lilienthal
carrying the device and running down from the summit of his
hill, then jumping into the wind. With practice, Lilienthal
learned to get his gliders to carry him more than 150 feet.
Later, Lilienthal started testing his gliders at the higher
Rhinowner Hill near Berlin. There he was able to achieve flights
of over a 1,000 feet.
While he was successful at building gliders, Lilienthal's
attempts to build a flying machine failed. He built his two
powered planes to use a flapping motion to provide forward movement,
instead of an airscrew, and they never achieved flight. Before
he could attempt a third design he crashed a glider and broke
his back. He died the next day on August 10, 1896.
However his work had inspired another man fascinated
with manned flight: Octave Chanute. Chanute was born in Paris
and immigrated to America as a child. He earned a degree and
over the years became regarded as one of the United States most
successful engineers. Chanute became interested in aviation
after studying engineering problems surrounding the wind. In
1896 he teamed up with three other men with aviation interests,
William Avery, William Butusov and Augustus Herring. In 1896
they went to a site on the south shore of Lake Michigan about
30 miles east of Chicago. There wind had blown sand into hills
that rose up some 300 feet above the beach. They experimented
there with several gliders. Lilienthal had kept his gliders
under control by shifting his body to change the center of gravity
of the craft. It was Chanute's belief that any successful plane
would have to be naturally stable in all wind conditions without
the need of physical gyrations of the pilot. One of the gliders
the group tested had been designed by Chanute himself so that
he could change the number of wings (up to twelve) and place
them stacked at the front or rear of the craft. This glider,
nicknamed "Katydid" because of its insect-like appearance,
when configured with five wings in front and one in the rear
produced the kind of stability Chanute was looking for. The
party would return a number of weeks later with improved gliders
that would convince Chanute that it was possible to built an
inherently stable aircraft.
vs. the Brothers from Dayton
As the new century dawned, men all over the world
worked endless hours on their dreams hoping to be the first
to succeed in building a powered flying machine. Two parties
seemed to have pulled in front: One was a respected scientist
from a well-known institution who was backed by the resources
of the U.S. government. The other was two brothers from the
Midwest who owned a bicycle shop.
Samuel Langley was already a well-known astrophysicist
when turned to the problem of flight. As the Assistant Secretary
and later the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Langley
had the staff and money to pursue the problem relentlessly.
At first he built model rubber-band-powered gliders. These tests
led him to believe that the major difficulty with constructing
a flying machine would be to build an engine powerful and light
enough to work in an aircraft. His staff labored over several
years to build the machines Langley would launch from a catapult
on top of a houseboat anchored in the Potomac River about 30
miles south of Washington near Quantico.
flying machine, which he called an Aerodrome, is launched
from the top of a houseboat in the Potomac River. The
plane crashed when the catapult mechanism used to launch
the craft snagged it.
Langley's first few craft were total failures,
but number six and seven, both unmanned gliders, each flew for
over a minute. This convinced Langley that he was on the right
path and in 1898 he persuaded the War Department to give him
a grant of $50,000 and several years to develop a flying machine.
About the same time as Langley was starting his
work for the War Department, 32-year old Wilber Wright wrote
a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information
on aeronautics. He and his younger brother Orville, sons of
a United Brethren Church bishop, had always been mechanically
inclined and had started a successful bicycle shop in 1896.
The news of Otto Lilienthal's death triggered an interest within
them to do some aeronautical research of their own. Their move
to enter the race to build the first flying machine was as much
a business decision as anything else. Wilber explained several
years later that human flight was, "almost the only great
problem which has not been pursued by a multitude of investigators,
and therefore carried to the point where further progress is
The brothers plunged into research by reading
every book in the Dayton area on the subject of flight. They
were amazed to find that nobody had really figured out the problem
of how to control an aircraft once it was in the air. By carefully
studying buzzards in flight, however, they noticed that the
animal kept its balance by a slight twisting of its wing tip.
They built a kite that could warp it wings slightly and found
it to be an effective method of control. Next, they built a
glider capable of carrying a man using the same wing-warping
Kitty Hawk, a small village on a narrow barrier
island off the coast of North Carolina, was selected as the
brother's test site because of the constant wind, wide beach
and lack of trees or bushes. Wilbur arrived there on September
13, 1900 to be joined by Orville a few days later. At first
they tested the glider tied down like a kite. It was 17-feet
across with two stacked wings and designed so that the pilot
could lay face down on the lower wing. The wing warping was
controlled by a bar at the pilot's feet, while a hand lever
was used to control the craft's up and down motion by moving
a wing-like surface (later to be called an elevator) that stuck
out from the front of the glider. Later they took the craft
to a large sand mound, called Kill Devil Hill, and did some
manned glides that went as far as 400 feet.
Whitehead build a working airplane before the Wright
Brothers did? Check
The next year they returned with a new, heavier
glider and lumber to build a permanent shed. Octave Chanute,
with whom the brothers had been corresponding to get advice,
visited the camp and provided Wilber and Orville with two assistants.
After some adjustments, the forward elevator seem to control
the craft's up and down motion extremely well, but turning was
a different matter. Returning to Dayton, the brothers began
to suspect that there were errors in a set of tables that Otto
Lilienthal had compiled on the lifting effect of air pressure
on wing surfaces at various speeds and angles. To prove this
they built a wind tunnel and tested wing shapes in it to get
their own data. Armed with this new knowledge they returned
to Kitty Hawk in 1902 with a new glider. Still, the problems
with turning continued until Orville realized that the craft
needed a movable tail, or rudder. With this change the glider
soared across the dunes of Kitty Hawk under perfect control.
The race to be the first to test a successful
airplane was on. As they prepared to return to Kitty Hawk for
the 1903 season, the brothers checked the newspapers carefully,
following the progress of Samuel Langley, who appeared to be
the only other person close to inventing a working flying machine.
This time they would be taking with them to Kitty Hawk a glider/flying
machine to be powered by a 12 h.p. gasoline engine they had
designed and built in their own shop..
After they arrived at their beach camp the news
came: Samuel Langley's latest attempt to test a flying machine
on October 7th had failed. For the moment the brothers had the
field to themselves, but perhaps not for long. On November 8th
Langley was scheduled to make a formal request for more funds
to continue his project.
Despite bad weather and a broken propeller shaft
they managed to get the new machine put together. With the engine
the craft tipped the scales at over 600 pounds without a pilot.
This meant that it could not be launched by having crewmen pull
it along by its wingtips as was the case with earlier gliders,
so the brothers built a wooden track. The flyer would roll along
the track on a wheeled dolly that would be left behind when
the plane took off. The craft would then land on a pair of skids.
photo snapped of the Wright Brother's first flight.
Orville pilots, while Wilber runs alongside.
On December 17, 1903, the brothers were ready
to try a powered flight from level ground. An earlier test a
few days before had led to a crashed flying machine and forced
several days worth of repairs. With help from the nearby Lifesaving
Station the brothers laid the takeoff track and positioned the
aircraft. A coin was tossed to see who would be the pilot and
Orville won. At 10:35 AM the engine was revved up and the restraining
wire was released. The flyer, under its own power, picked up
speed and was going about seven or eight miles an hour when
it lifted off the track. It climbed to about ten feet, then
settled gently to the ground. The flight was short, only a little
over a hundred feet, but it was the first time a manned, heavier-than-air
vehicle had gotten off the ground under its own power in controlled
flight and landed at a spot as high as it had started from.
The Wrights made three more flights that day going
as far as 852 feet. Then a savage gust of wind caught the machine
as it was parked near their campsite, picked it up and smashed
it beyond immediate repair. The brothers were not disappointed,
however. They had flown and, as they said in a telegram that
day to their father, "the age of the flying machine had
come at last."
Continue with the story of early flight in Part
2: From Wilber to War
Copyright 2001Lee Krystek.
All Rights Reserved.