History of Flight - A Look At The History of Flight.

The History of Flight

The history of flight has a long and storied road. For many centuries, humans have tried to fly just like the birds. We have studied the flight of birds in order to mimic their actions. The results were often disastrous. Icarus' attempt to fly by creating wings made of feathers and wax was a good idea, however, he forgot (or didn't know) that wax doesn't work well with the sun. He ended up plunging into the sea.

It wasn't until the Wright Brothers first took off, in the worlds first powered lighter than air machine, that the dream of flying was realised. Man had flown, prior to the Wright Brothers invention, in ballons, kites and gliders, however the Wright Brothers' invention, now allowed man to fly sustained flights without relying on wind currents and speed.

Da Vinci's Other Idea For An Airplane

Flying could now be done anytime, and anywhere, with a gas powered engine. Here is a brief timeline of the events, leading up to the Wright Brothers' first launch in December of 1903. Please visit the links below for information on who invented the airplane and what was the first plane invented, who made the first airplane, aviation in World War One, and World War Two, plus famous airplanes of our times.

The History of Flight - Early Experiments

The history of flight can be traced back as early as 400 B.C. Archytas, a Greek scholar, built a wooden pigeon that moved through the air. It is unknown exactly how this was done, but most believe that Archytas attached it to a steam powered arm that made it go in circles. About 300 B.C, the Chinese developed kites, which acted the same as a glider. This allowed humans to be flown inside of the kites.

Da-Vinci's Airplane Design

Another famous Greek mathematician, Archimedes, discovered the principle of buoyancy in about 200 BC. He discovered how and why some objects float in liquids. This fact helped in the progress of true flight. When the great libraries in Alexandria, Egypt were destroyed in 500 A.D. the discoveries of Archimedes and many others were lost for a thousand years. 2000 years later men used Archimedes' principle to help them with the hot-air-balloon. Later in 1290 A.D Roger Bacon thoerized that air, like water, has something solid around it, and something built correctly could be supported by the air.

The History of Flight - First Attempts

Early attempts to fly involved the invention of ingenuous machines, such as ornithopters. These were based upon designs written in 1500 by Leonardo da Vinci. This type of flying machine utilizes the flapping of the wings in order to achieve flight. Needless to say that all attempts to fly using this type of machine failed, but it is worth mentioning in the timeline for the history of flight.

The History of Flight - 2nd Attempts at Flight

The history of flight then moves to the first free flight in an artifical device. This was done by two Frenchmen, Jean F. Pilatre de Rozier, and Marquis d'Arlandes. They achieved this with a large linen ballon, and floated for more than five miles over Paris, France.


The idea of filling a closed container with a substance that normally rises through the atmosphere, appeared as early as the thirteen century. Over a five hundred year span, different substances came to be known as being lighter-than-air. Between 1650 and 1900 this approach was used for flight. The most common gases proposed were water vapor, helium and hydrogen. The first successful attempts at achieving flight using his type of aircraft were made by the Montgolfier brothers in France. Their most successful attempt was in 1783 when in a public demonstration, they achieved 6000 ft in a balloon with a diameter of more than 100 ft. As time went by, it was soon recognized that balloons although able to achieve flight, were basically handicapped by a total lack of directional control. This problem was solved with the introduction of power plants or engines in elongated-like balloons. This elongated shape helped reduce drag in order to decrease the power size. The most successful builder of this type of lighter-than-air craft was Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, whose name is synonymous with large rigid dirigibles. The term "dirigible" really means controllable. In the early 1930's the German Graf Zeppelin machine was able to make a Trans-Atlantic flight to the United States. They flew 18 mph and had a rigid metal frame that kept it in flight even if gas or power was lost. The Zeppelin design was copied and improved by others throughout the world. One such airship was 3 times larger than a Boeing 747 and cruised at 68 mph. It made regular flights from Europe to South America in which 24 people had their own suites and dined from menus prepared by famous chefs.The large Hindenburg was equally successful until it was destroyed by fire while attempting a landing in 1937 in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The Hindenburg marked the end of large scale Zeppelin travel. Nowadays, the blimp has become ubiquitous, appearing over the skies of ballgames and large outdoor events.

The History of Flight - Glider Flight

The invention of the glider is worth mentioning in the history of flight. In 1804, a British inventor, George Cayley, built the first successful glider. His original craft was a small model. He founded the study of aerodynamics, and was the first to suggest a fixed wing aircraft with a propeller was an achievable milestone.

Otto Lilienthal, a German, developed the first piloted glider. His work inspired other inventors. They included: Percy Pilcher of Great Britian, and Octave Chanute of the United States. These early gliders were hard to control, but could carry the pilot hundreds of feet into the air.

The History of Flight - Powered Flight

Powered flight is the topic where most people think of when you mention the history of flight. Most people don't realise how long man has been trying to fly. In 1843, William S. Henderson, patented plans for the first plane with an engine, fixed wings, and propellers. After one unsucessful try the inventor gave up. Then in 1848, John Stringfellow built a small model which worked, but could only stay up for a short period of time.

In 1890, a French engineer by the name of Clement Ader attemped flight in his steam powered plane. His plane failed. He could not control, nor keep the plane in the air. Another steam powered plane, built by Sir Hiram Maxim, lifted off briefly, but did not fly. It was a gigantic steam powered machine with two wings, two engines, and two propellers.

The Silver Dart in Baddeck, Nova Scotia

In the 1890's an American by the name of Samuel P. Langley, a scientist, attemped piloted flight. His early experiments involved a small steam powered plane called the aerodrome. In 1896 it flew half a mile in ninety seconds. Later he created a full-sized aerodrome with a gas engine which was designed for piloted flight. Two attempts were made, on October 7, 1903, and December 8, 1903, and both failed.

As you can see the history of flight has had it's share of failures. Next we will look at the history of flights' successes.

The History of Flight - History Of The Airplane

The history of flight would not be complete without talking about the Wright Brothers. The Wright Brothers originally became interested in flight after they began reading of Lilienthal's gliding flights in Germany. Upon his death they vowed to continue his progress. The Wright Brothers began flying gliders near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. For 4 years they made 1000 successful gliding flights.

Unable to find an engine manufacturer to meet their specifications of 8 horsepower and engine weight of less than 200 pounds, they decided to design and build their own engine. Aided by their bicycle mechanic Charlie Taylor, they were able to build an engine that produced 12 horsepower. With the engine built, they then faced the problem of how to build a propeller since very little was known on the subject. Surprisingly, with their previously collected wing data, they were able to build accurately the engine propellers. Using the basic airframe of their 1902 Glider, the Kitty Hawk Flyer was born.

After numerous improvements, and studying how birds flew they were ready to test the Flyer out. They flipped a coin, and Wilbur won. They tested the Flyer, but the plane crashed after a wing dipped down. On December 17, 1903 it was Orville's turn which resulted in a 120-foot, 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The aircraft represented the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine.

The Wright Brothers with the Wright Flyer

After their success the Wright Brothers tried to sell their design to other governments. Since the brothers never made an official and public flight the governments were not about to spend on something they didn't even know worked.

The History of Flight - World War I (1914 - 1918)

Commercial aviation was very slow to catch on with the general public, most of which was afraid to ride in the new flying machines. Improvements in aircraft design also were slow. However, with World War I, the military value of aircraft was quickly recognized and production increased significantly to meet the rising demand for planes. Most significant was the development of more powerful motors, enabling aircraft to reach speeds of up to 130 mph, more than twice the speed of pre-war aircraft. Increased power also made bigger aircraft possible.

Sopwith Camel

On the other hand, the war was bad for commercial aviation in several ways. It focused all design and production efforts on building military aircraft. In the public's mind, flying became almost totally associated with bombing runs, surveillance, and aerial dog fights. In addition, there was such a large surplus of planes at the end of the war that the demand for new production was almost non-existent for several years. As a result, many aircraft builders went bankrupt. Some European countries such as Great Britain and France helped commercial aviation by starting air service over the English Channel. However, nothing similar occurred in the United States where there were no such natural obstacles isolating major cities and where railroads could transport people almost as fast as an airplane, and in considerably more comfort. The salvation of U.S. commercial aviation industry following World War I was a government program, but one that had nothing to do with the transportation of people, but rather mail. The use of Air Mail is how commercial aviation caught on in the US.

The History of Flight - World War II

Aviation had an enormous impact on the course of World War II and the war had just as big of an impact on aviation. There were fewer than 300 air transports in the United States when Hitler marched into Poland in 1938. By the end of the war, over 40 U.S. aircraft manufacturers were producing 50,000 planes a year. By the end of the war the US had built more than 300,000 aircraft. During the war, aircraft production had become the world's leading manufacturing industry.

Most of the planes were fighters (equiped with the Rolls Royce Merlin Engine) and bombers, but the importance of air transport to the war effort quickly became apparent as well. Throughout the war, the airlines provided much needed airlift to keep people and supplies moving to the front and throughout the production chain back home. For the first time in their history, the airlines had far more business -- for passengers as well as freight -- than they could handle. Many of them also had opportunities to pioneer new routes, gaining an exposure that would give them a decidedly broader outlook at war's end.


While there were numerous advances in U.S. aircraft design during the war that enabled planes to go faster, higher, and further than ever before, mass production was the chief goal of the United States. The major innovations of the wartime period --radar and jet engines -- occurred in Europe.

To research the history of airplane propellers and how they have evolved over the years, then please vist my Airplane Propellers page. The History of Flight - The Jet Engine

Isaac Newton was the first to theorize that a rearward-channeled explosion could propel a machine forward at a great rate of speed (Newton's 3rd Law). However, no one found a practical application for the theory until Frank Whittle, a British pilot, designed the first jet engine in 1930. Even then, widespread skepticism about the commercial viability of a jet prevented Whittle's design from being tested for several years.

The Germans were the first to actually build and test a jet aircraft. Based on a design by Hans von Ohain, a student working independent of Whittle, it flew in 1939, although not as well as the Germans had hoped. It would take another five years for German scientists to perfect the design, by which time it was too late to affect the outcome of the war.

F-18 Super Hornet

Whittle also improved his jet engine during the war, and in 1942 he shipped an engine prototype to General Electric in the United States. America's first jet plane was built the following year. The history of flight now enters the jet age!

The History of Flight - Dawn of the Jet Age

Aviation was poised to advance rapidly following the war, in large part because of the development of jets, but there were still significant problems to overcome. In 1952, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (now British Airways) was formed. It used the new jet engine technology in its de Havilland Comets. The Comet was a 36-seat British-made jet which flew from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, at speeds as high as 500 miles per hour. Two years later, the Comet's career ended abruptly following two back-to-back accidents in which the fuselage burst apart during flight -- the result of metal fatigue caused by repeated pressurization cycles. The Comet was later redesigned to be safer.

Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet

The cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States following World War II helped secure the funding needed to solve such problems and advance the jet's development. Most of the breakthroughs related to military aircraft that were later applied to the commercial sector. For example, Boeing employed a swept-back wing design for its B-47 and B-52 bombers to reduce drag and increase speed. Later, the design was incorporated into commercial jets, making them faster and thus more attractive to passengers. The best example of military-civilian technology transfer was the jet tanker Boeing designed for the Air Force to refuel bombers in flight, thus extending their range. The tanker, called the KC- 135, was a huge success as a military plane but even more successful when revamped and introduced in 1958 as the first U.S. passenger jet, the Boeing 707. With a length of 125 feet and four engines with 17,000 pounds of thrust, the 707 could carry up to 181 passengers and travel at speeds as high as 550 miles per hour. Its engines proved more reliable than piston driven engines, and they produced less vibration, putting less stress on the plane's airframe and reducing maintenance expenses. They also burned kerosene, which cost half as much as the high octane gasoline used in more traditional planes. With the 707, first ordered and operated by Pan Am, all questions about the commercial feasibility of jets were answered. The jet age had arrived, and other airlines soon were lining up to buy the new aircraft.

The History of Flight - Widebodies and Supersonics

1969 marked the debut of another revolutionary aircraft, the Boeing 747, which Pan Am was the first to purchase and fly in commercial service. It was the first widebody jet, with two aisles, a distinctive upper deck over the front section of the fuselage, and four engines under its wings. With seating for as many as 450 passengers, it was twice as big as any other Boeing jet and 80% bigger than the largest jet built up until that time, the DC-8.

Recognizing the economies of scale to be gained from larger jets, other aircraft manufacturers quickly followed suit. Douglas built its first widebody, the DC-10, in 1970, and only a month later, Lockheed flew its contender in the widebody market, the L- 1011. Both of these jets had three engines (one under each wing and one on the tail) and were smaller than the 747, seating about 250 passengers.

Boeing 777 Airliner

During the same period of time, efforts were underway in both the United States and Europe to build a supersonic commercial aircraft. The Soviet Union was the first to succeed, testing the Tupolev 144 in December of 1968. A consortium of West European aircraft manufacturers first flew the Concorde two months later and eventually produced a number of those fast, but small, jets for commercial service. U.S. efforts to produce a supersonic passenger jet, on the other hand, foundered in 1971 due to public concern about the sonic boom produced by such aircraft. U.S. airlines have never operated a supersonic aircraft.

Source for the History of Flight : http://www.about.com

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