The fantasy of flight led people to dream up intricate designs in an attempt to imitate the flight of birds. Leonardo da Vinci sketched a vision of flying machines in his 15th century manuscripts. His work consisted of a number of wing designs including a human-powered ornithopter, the name derived from the Greek word for bird. Centuries later, when others began to experiment with his designs, it became apparent that the human body could not sustain flight by flapping wings like birds. [Figure 1-1] The dream of human flight continued to capture the imagination of many, but it was not until 1799 when Sir George Cayley, a Baronet in Yorkshire, England, conceived a craft with stationary wings to provide lift, flappers to provide thrust, and a movable tail to provide control.
Otto Lilienthal was a German pioneer of human flight who became known as the Glider King. [Figure 1-2] He was the first person to make well-documented, repeated, successful gliding flights beginning in 1891. [Figure 1-3] He followed an experimental approach established earlier by Sir George Cayley. Newspapers and magazines published photographs of Lilienthal gliding, favorably influencing public and scientific opinion about the possibility of flying machines becoming practical.
By the early 1900s, the famed Wright Brothers were experimenting with gliders and gliding flight in the hills of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. [Figure 1-4] The Wrights developed a series of gliders while experimenting with aerodynamics, which was crucial to developing a workable control system. Many historians, and most importantly the Wrights themselves, pointed out that their game plan was to learn flight control and become pilots specifically by soaring, whereas all the other experimenters rushed to add power without refining flight control. By 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright had achieved powered flight of just over a minute by putting an engine on their best glider design.
By 1906, the sport of gliding was progressing rapidly. An American glider meet was sponsored by the Aero Club of America on Long Island, New York. By 1911, Orville Wright had set a world duration record of flying his motorless craft for 9 minutes and 45 seconds.
By 1920, the sport of soaring was coming into its own. Glider design was spurred on by developments in Germany where the World War I Treaty of Versailles banned flying power aircraft. New forms of lift were discovered that made it possible to gain altitude and travel distances using these previously unknown atmospheric resources. In 1921, Dr. Wolfgang Klemperer broke the Wright Brothers 1911 soaring duration record with a flight of 13 minutes using ridge lift. In 1928, Austrian Robert Kronfeld proved that thermal lift could be used by a sailplane to gain altitude by making a short out and return flight. In 1929, the National Glider Association was founded in Detroit, Michigan; by 1930, the first USA National Glider Contest was held in Elmira, New York. In 1937, the first World Championships were held at the Wasserkuppe in Germany.
By the 1950s, soaring was developing rapidly with the first American, Dr. Paul MacCready, Jr., taking part in a World Soaring Championships held in Sweden. Subsequently, Dr. MacCready went on to become the first American to win a World Soaring Championship in 1956 in France.
The period of the 1960s and 1980s found soaring growing rapidly. During this period, there was also a revival of hang gliders and ultralight aircraft as new materials and a better understanding of low-speed aerodynamics made new designs possible.
By the late 1990s, aviation had become commonplace with jet travel becoming critical to the world economy. Soaring had grown into a diverse and interesting sport. Modern high performance gliders are made from composite materials and take advantage of highly refined aerodynamics and control systems. Today, soaring pilots use sophisticated instrumentation, including global positioning system (GPS) and altitude information (variometer) integrated into electronic glide computers to go farther, faster, and higher than ever before.