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Start The History of Aviation
23 May 2023

The History of Aviation

Estimated reading time Time 3 to read

Any knowledgeable person would say that the first flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft was that of Orville and Wilbur Wright in their Flyer I, on 17 December 1903 at Kitty Hawk (North Carolina). But they would be wrong. Oversimplification leads to error: while is correct to say that the Wright brothers made the first aeroplane, theirs was an achievement that built on the advances of other pioneers who had already flown heavier-than-air aircraft, or who had tackled the problems of flight before the necessary technology existed.

Today, credit for the first flight is often given to the Berber Andalusian polymath Abbas Ibn Firnas, born in Ronda (Malaga, Spain), who is said to have leapt from a high place in Cordoba in 875 on wooden wings covered with silk and feathers and glided for about 10 seconds before falling and breaking bones in his back and legs. Two centuries later, the English monk Eilmer of Malmesbury made a similar attempt which also resulted in broken bones. Both men apparently overlooked the fact that they needed a bird-like tail to land successfully, but for centuries bird flight continued to inspire early pioneers, most famously Leonardo da Vinci. His ornithopter was never built, but Leonardo grasped that human muscles were too weak to move wings simply attached to arms and that a combination of arm and leg movement using pulleys was needed.

First successful flight of the Wright Flyer in 1903. The machine traveled 36.6 meters in 12 seconds. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

Until the 19th century, there were numerous attempts to build flying machines that gradually moved away from the bird model. Some inventors, such as the German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal, focused only on gliding, controlling direction by shifting the body. Others, such as Augustus Herring, William Samuel Henson, Samuel Langley, Hiram Maxim and Clément Ader, tried to advance propulsion, but the heavy steam engines of the time were not suitable. The English engineer George Cayley, considered the father of aerodynamics, was noted for his scientific study of flight, defining the concept of the aeroplane as it is understood today: a fixed-wing aircraft with separate lift, propulsion and control systems.


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The Wright brothers’ great achievement was to solve the problem of control; although they judiciously incorporated a petrol engine, they decided that propulsion was a secondary objective and that instead it was essential that the aircraft could be flown. During their tests, they saw the need to control movement in the three axes of space: longitudinal (roll), lateral or transversal (pitch) and vertical (yaw). Although the first practical aircraft would use different systems to those adopted by the Wrights, their innovations basically solved the problem of piloted flight.

The Wright brothers’ success spurred a wave of design improvements and new milestones. In 1909, the French inventor and engineer Louis Blériot crossed the English Channel from Calais to Dover, and in 1914 the first regular commercial airline service from St. Petersburg to Tampa (Florida) was briefly inaugurated in a Benoist Type XIV flying boat (seaplane), with the only passenger seated next to the pilot in an open cockpit. World War I was the impetus for aviation to take off. At its end, in 1919, the oldest surviving commercial airline, the Dutch KLM, was founded.

From the first nonstop transatlantic flight to the supersonic aircraft

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh completed his famous solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris, and the following year the Spanish civil engineer and inventor Juan de la Cierva crossed the English Channel in his autogyro, an innovative concept that nevertheless failed to succeed. In the 1930s, fledgling airlines began intercontinental flights, only in seaplanes and with an endless list of stopovers, while pioneers like Amelia Earhart gave their lives in the endeavour to explore longer, non-stop routes. In 1938, a German Lufthansa aircraft became the first land-based passenger plane to cross the Atlantic non-stop.

Demonstrating a Cierva C.6 autogyro at Farnborough, UK. Credit: Andy Dingley

Since the world’s first commercial jetliner, the De Havilland DH.106 Comet in 1952, there have been countless improvements in safety, the replacement of mechanical control with electronics and many other technical aspects, but not in the passenger experience; after the failure of the supersonic Concorde and except for in-flight entertainment and other details, a traveller in the 1950s would hardly notice anything different on a flight today. With the climate emergency, efforts are now focused on reducing aviation’s environmental footprint. But we passengers are still waiting for those new supersonic and hypersonic aircraft that are the subject of numerous experimental projects. But all indications are that it will be decades before this revolutionary type of flight takes off.


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