Mar 25, 2023
Humans have probably considered flight since they found birds. As far as 228 million years ago, the Pterosaurs used flight to reign down onto other animals from above and eat them. The first known bird-like dinosaur was the Archaeopteryx, which lived around 150 million years ago. It’s not considered an ancestor of modern birds - but other dinosaurs from the same era, the theropods, are. 25 million years later, in modern China, the Confuciusornis sanctus had feathers and could have flown. The first humans wouldn’t emerge from Africa until 23 million years later. By the 2300s BCE, the Summerians depicted shepherds riding eagles, as humanity looked to the skies in our myths and legends. These were creatures, not vehicles.
The first documented vehicle of flight was as far back as the 7th century BCE when the Rāmāyana told of the Pushpaka Vimāna, a palace made by Vishwakarma for Brahma, complete with chariots that flew the king Rama high into the atmosphere. The Odyssey was written around the same time and tells of the Greek pantheon of Gods but doesn’t reference flight as we think of it today. Modern interpretations might move floating islands to the sky, but it seems more likely that the floating island of Aeollia is really the islands off Aeolis, or Anatolia, which we might refer to as the modern land of Turkey.
Greek myths from a few hundred years later introduced more who were capable of flight. Icarus flew into the sun with wings that had been fashioned by Daedalus. By then, they could have been aware, through trade routes cut by Alexander and later rulers, of kites from China. The earliest attempts at flight trace their known origins to 500 BCE in China. Kites were, like most physical objects, heavier than air and could still be used to lift an object into flight. Some of those early records even mention the ability to lift humans off the ground with a kite. The principle used in kites was used later in the development of gliders and then when propulsion was added, modern aircraft. Any connection between any of these is conjecture as we can’t know how well the whisper net worked in those ages.
Many legends are based on real events. The history of humanity is vast and many of our myths are handed down through the generations. The Greeks had far more advanced engineering capabilities than some of the societies that came after. They were still weary of what happened if they flew too close to the sun. In fact, emperors of China are reported to have forced some to leap from cliffs on a glider as a means of punishment. Perhaps that was where the fear of flight for some originated from. Chinese emperor Wang Mang used a scout with bird features to glide on a scouting mission around the same time as the Icarus myth might have been documented. Whether this knowledge informed the storytellers Ovid documented in his story of Icarus is lost to history, since he didn’t post it to Twitter.
Once the Chinese took the string off the kite and they got large enough to fly with a human, they had also developed hang gliders. In the third century BCE, Chinese inventors added the concept of rotors for vertical flight when they developed helicopter-style toys. Those were then used to frighten off enemies. Some of those evolved into the beautiful paper lanterns that fly when lit.There were plenty of other evolutions and false starts with flight after that. Abbas ibn Ferns also glided with feathers in the 9th century. A Benedictine monk did so again in the 11th century. Both were injured when they jumped out of towers in the Middle Ages that spanned the Muslim Golden Age to England.
Leonardo da Vinci studied flight for much of his life. His studies produced another human-power ornithopter and other contraptions; however he eventually realized that humans would not be able to fly on their own power alone. Others attempted the same old wings made of bird feathers, wings that flapped on the arms, wings tied to legs, different types of feathers, finding higher places to jump from, and anything they could think of. Many broke bones, which continued until we found ways to supplement human power to propel us into the air. Then a pair of brothers in the Ottoman Empire had some of the best luck. Hezarafen Ahmed Çelebi crossed the Bosphorus strait on a glider. That was 1633, and by then gunpowder already helped the Ottomans conquer Constantinople. That ended the last vestiges of ancient Roman influence along with the Byzantine empire as the conquerers renamed the city to Instanbul. That was the power of gunpowder. His brother then built a rocket using gunpowder and launched himself high in the air, before he glided back to the ground.
The next major step was the hot air balloon. The modern hot air balloon was built by the Montgolfier brothers in France and first ridden in 1783 and (Petrescu & Petrescu, 2013). 10 days later, the first gas balloon was invented by Nicholas Louis Robert and Jacques Alexander Charles. The gas balloon used hydrogen and in 1785, used to cross the English Channel. That trip sparked the era of dirigibles. We built larger balloons to lift engines with propellers. That began a period that culminated with the Zeppelin. From the 1700s and on, much of what da Vinci realized was rediscovered, but this time published, and the body of knowledge built out. The physics of flight were then studied as new sciences emerged. Sir George Cayley started to actually apply physics to flight in the 1790s.
We see this over and over in history; once we understand the physics and can apply science, progress starts to speed up. That was true when Archimedes defined force multipliers with the simple machines in the 3rd century BCE, true with solid state electronics far later, and true with Cayley’s research. Cayley conducted experiments, documented his results, and proved hypotheses. He finally got to codifying bird flight and why it worked. He studied the Chinese tops that worked like modern helicopters. He documented glided flight and applied math to why it worked. He defined drag and measured the force of windmill blades. In effect, he got to the point that he knew how much power was required based on the ratio of weight to actually sustain flight. Then to achieve that, he explored the physics of fixed-wing aircraft, complete with an engine, tail assembly, and fuel. His work culminated in a work called “On Aerial Navigation” that was published in 1810.
By the mid-1850s, there was plenty of research that flowed into the goal for sustained air travel. Ideas like rotors led to rotor crafts. Those were all still gliding. Even with Cayley’s research, we had triplane gliders, gliders launched from balloons. After that, the first aircrafts that looked like the modern airplanes we think of today were developed. Cayley’s contributions were profound. He even described how to mix air with gasoline to build an engine. Influenced by his work, others built propellers. Some of those were steam powered and others powered by tight springs, like clockworks. Aeronautical societies were created, wing counters and cambering were experimented with, and wheels were added to try to lift off. Some even lifted a little off the ground. By the 1890s, the first gasoline powered biplane gliders were developed and flown, even if those early experiments crashed. Humanity was finally ready for powered flight.
The Smithsonian housed some of the earliest experiments. They hired their third director, Samuel Langley, in 1887. He had been interested in aircraft for decades and as with many others had studied the Cayley work closely. He was a consummate tinkerer and had already worked in solar physics and developed the Allegheny Time System. The United States War department gave him grants to pursue his ideas to build an airplane. By then, there was enough science that humanity knew it was possible to fly and so there was a race to build powered aircraft. We knew the concepts of drag, rudders, thrust from some of the engineering built into ships. Some of that had been successfully used in the motorcar. We also knew how to build steam engines, which is what he used in his craft. He called it the Aerodrome and built a number of models. He was able to make it further than anyone at the time. He abandoned flight in 1903 when someone beat him to the finish line.
That’s the year humans stepped beyond gliding and into the first controlled, sustained, and powered flight. There are reports that Gustave Whitehead beat the Wright Brothers, but he didn’t keep detailed notes or logs, and so the Wrights are often credited with the discovery. They managed to solve the problem of how to roll, built steerable rudders, and built the first biplane with an internal combustion engine. They flew their first airplane out of North Carolina when Orville Wright went 120 feet and his brother went 852 feet later that day. That plane now lives at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and December 17th, 1903 represents the start of the age of flight.
The Wright’s spent two years testing gliders and managed to document their results. They studied in wind tunnels, tinkered with engines, and were methodical if not scientific in their approach. They didn’t manage to have a public demonstration until 1908 though and so there was a lengthy battle over the patents they filed. Turns out it was a race and there were a lot of people who flew within months of one another. Decades of research culminated into what had to be: airplanes. Innovation happened quickly. Flight improved enough that planes could cross English Channel by 1909. There were advances after that, but patent wars over the invention drug on and so investors stayed away from the unproven technology.
Flight for the Masses
The superpowers of the world were at odds for the first half of the 1900s. An Italian pilot flew a reconnaissance mission in Libya in the Italo-Turkish war in 1911. It took only 9 days before they went from just reconnaissance and dropped grenades on Turkish troops from the planes. The age of aerial warfare had begun. The Wrights had received an order for the first plane from the military back in 1908. Military powers took note and by World War I there was an air arm of every military power. Intelligence wins wars. The innovation was ready for the assembly lines, so during and after the war, the first airplane manufacturers were born.
Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker was inspired by Wilbur Wright’s exhibition in 1908. He went on to start a company and design the Fokker M.5, which evolved into the Fokker E.I. after World War I broke out in 1914. They mounted a machine gun and synchronized it to the propeller in 1915. Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron, flew one before he upgraded to the Fokker D.VII and later an Albatros. Fokker made it all the way into the 1990s before they went bankrupt. Albatros was founded in 1909 by Enno Huth, who went on to found the German Air Force before the war.
The Bristol Aeroplane Company was born in 1910 after Sir George White, who was involved in transportation already, met Wilbur Wright in France. Previous companies were built to help hobbyists, similar to how many early PC companies came from inventors as well. This can be seen with people like Maurice Mallet, who helped design gas balloons and dirigibles. He licensed airplane designs to Bristol who later brought in Frank Barnwell and other engineers that helped design the Scout. They based the Bristol Fighters that were used in World War I on those designs. Another British manufacturer was Sopwith, started by Thomas Sopwith, who taught himself to fly and then started a company to make planes. They built over 16,000 by the end of the war. After the war they pivoted to make ABC motorcycles and eventually sold to Hawker Aircraft in 1920, which later sold to Raytheon.
The same paradigm played out elsewhere in the world, including the United States. Once those patent disputes were settled, plenty knew flight would help change the world. By 1917 the patent wars in the US had to end as the countries contributions to flight suffered. No investor wanted to touch the space and so there was a lack of capital to expand. Orville Write passed away in 1912 and Wilbur sold his rights to the patents, so the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, stepped in and brought all the parties to the table to develop a cross-licensing organization. After almost 25 years, we could finally get innovation in flight back on track globally. In rapid succession, Loughead Aircraft, Lockheed, and Douglas Aircraft were founded. Then Jack Northrop left those and started his own aircraft company. Boeing was founded in 1957 as Aero Products and then United Aircraft, which was spun off into United Airlines as a carrier in the 1930s with Boeing continuing to make planes.
United was only one of many a commercial airline that was created. Passenger air travel started after the first air flights with the first airline ferrying passengers in 1914. With plenty of airplanes assembled at all these companies, commercial travel was bound to explode into its own big business. Delta started as a cropdusting service in Macon, Georgia in 1925 and has grown into an empire. The worlds largest airline at the time of this writing is American Airlines, which started in 1926 when a number of smaller airlines banded together. Practically every country had at least one airline. Pan American (Panam for short) in 1927, Ryan Air started in 1926, Slow-Air in 1924, Finnair in 1923, Quantus in 1920, KLM in 1919, and the list goes on. Enough that the US passed the Air Commerce Act in 1926, which over time led to the department of Air Commerce, which evolved into the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA we know today.
Aircrafts were refined and made more functional. World War I brought with it the age of aerial combat. Plenty of supply after the war and then the growth of manufacturers Brough further innovation to compete with one another, and commercial aircraft and industrial uses (like cropdusting) enabled more investment into R&D
In 1926, the first flying boat service was inaugurated from New York to Argentina. Another significant development in aviation was in the 1930s when the jet engine was invented. This invention was done by Frank Whittle who registered a turbojet engine patent. A jet plane was also developed by Hans von Ohain and was called the Heinkel He 178 (Grant, 2017). The plane first flew in 1939, but the Whittle jet engine is the ancestor of those found in planes in World War II and beyond. And from there to the monster airliners and stealth fighters or X-15 becomes a much larger story. The aerospace industry continued to innovate both in the skies and into space.
The history of flight entered another phase in the Cold War. Rand corporation developed the concept of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (or ICBMs) and the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space in 1957. Then in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first landing on the moon and we continued to launch into space throughout the 1970s to 1990s, before opening up space travel to private industry. Those projects got bigger and bigger and bigger. But generations of enthusiasts and engineers were inspired by devices far smaller, and without pilots in the device.