The development of heavier-than-air flight has a long and storied history full of daring innovators who pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible. While the Wright Brothers are often credited with achieving the first sustained, controlled flight in 1903, they stood on the shoulders of earlier aviation pioneers.
One of the earliest pioneers was Sir George Cayley, a British engineer and inventor. In the early 1800s, Cayley established many of the basic principals of aerodynamics and aircraft design. He built small models powered by rubber bands and attempted unsuccessfully to build a full-sized manned glider. His work was an inspiration for later pioneers.
In Germany, Otto Lilienthal made over 2,000 successful glider flights in the 1890s. Known as the “Glider King,” he rigorously documented the flight characteristics of his gliders, providing a wealth of data for future aviators. He died in 1896 from injuries sustained in a glider crash, but his meticulous research lived on.
Samuel P. Langley in the United States was another pivotal early figure in aviation. He built large steam-powered models in the 1890s, including the Aerodrome A, which made short unmanned flights. While unsuccessful at manned flight, Langley’s work advanced understanding of aerodynamics and aircraft structures.
On December 17, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright Brothers achieved the first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flights. Orville piloted the first flight of 120 feet in 12 seconds. That same day, Wilbur flew a distance of 852 feet in 59 seconds. Over the next two years, the Wright Brothers continued improving their designs, flying up to 30 miles on one flight. Their achievement changed the course of history.
There were also important early aviation milestones outside of North America and Europe. In 1879, Joseph Ada Grace in Australia designed and built a steam-powered aircraft. It is believed to have lifted briefly off the ground, predating even the Wright Brothers first flight by over 20 years. However, a lack of photographic evidence from the flight leaves some uncertainty about its success.
In Brazil, Alberto Santos-Dumont flew the 14-bis in 1906, one of the first fixed-wing aircraft flights in Europe. This helped spread the knowledge and excitement of flying machines around the world.
This is just a small sampling of the bold pioneers who bravely took to the skies in rickety contraptions made of wood, wire, and canvas to achieve humanity’s ancient dream of flight. They laid the groundwork for the amazing advances in aviation that followed and are an inspiration to dare mighty things. There are countless other unsung heroes of aviation in the early 20th century who all have contributed to the development of the freedom of the skies.