From prehistoric times, humans have watched the flight of birds, and longed to imitate them, but lacked the power to do so. Logic dictated that if the small muscles of birds can lift them into the air and sustain them, then the larger muscles of humans should be able to duplicate the feat. No one knew about the intricate mesh of muscles, sinew, heart, breathing system, and devices not unlike wing flaps, variable-camber and spoilers of the modern airplane that enabled a bird to fly. Still, thousands of years and countless lives were lost in attempts to fly like birds.
The identity of the first “bird-men” who fitted themselves with wings and leapt off of cliffs in an effort to fly are lost in time, but each failure gave those who wished to fly questions that needed to be answered. Where had the wing flappers gone wrong? Philosophers, scientists, and inventors offered solutions, but no one could add wings to the human body and soar like a bird. During the 1500s, Leonardo da Vinci filled pages of his notebooks with sketches of proposed flying machines, but most of his ideas were flawed because he clung to the idea of birdlike wings. [Figure 1-1] By 1655, mathematician, physicist, and inventor Robert Hooke concluded that the human body does not possess the strength to power artificial wings. He believed human flight would require some form of artificial propulsion.
The quest for human flight led some practitioners in another direction. In 1783, the first manned hot air balloon, crafted by Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, flew for 23 minutes. Ten days later, Professor Jacques Charles flew the first gas balloon. A madness for balloon flight captivated the public’s imagination and for a time flying enthusiasts turned their expertise to the promise of lighter-than-air flight. But for all its majesty in the air, the balloon was little more than a billowing heap of cloth capable of no more than a one-way, downwind journey.
Balloons solved the problem of lift, but that was only one of the problems of human flight. The ability to control speed and direction eluded balloonists. The solution to that problem lay in a child’s toy familiar to the East for 2,000 years, but not introduced to the West until the 13th century—the kite. The kites used by the Chinese for aerial observation, to test winds for sailing, as a signaling device, and as a toy, held many of the answers to lifting a heavier-than-air device into the air.
One of the men who believed the study of kites unlocked the secrets of winged flight was Sir George Cayley. Born in England 10 years before the Mongolfier balloon flight, Cayley spent his 84 years seeking to develop a heavier-than-air vehicle supported by kite-shaped wings. [Figure 1-2] The “Father of Aerial Navigation,” Cayley discovered the basic principles on which the modern science of aeronautics is founded; built what is recognized as the first successful flying model; and tested the first full-size man-carrying airplane.
For the half-century after Cayley’s death, countless scientists, flying enthusiasts, and inventors worked toward building a powered flying machine. Men, such as William Samuel Henson, who designed a huge monoplane that was propelled by a steam engine housed inside the fuselage, and Otto Lilienthal, who proved human flight in aircraft heavier than air was practical, worked toward the dream of powered flight. A dream turned into reality by Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.
The bicycle-building Wright brothers of Dayton, Ohio, had experimented for 4 years with kites, their own homemade wind tunnel, and different engines to power their biplane. One of their great achievements in flight was proving the value of the scientific, rather than a build-it-and-see approach. Their biplane, The Flyer, combined inspired design and engineering with superior craftsmanship. [Figure 1-3] By the afternoon of December 17th, the Wright brothers had flown a total of 98 seconds on four flights. The age of flight had arrived.