We have for so many years been fascinated by watching birds fly and tried to do so ourselves. There are a few myths and legends of flight and my research has found some entertaining ones – these are just a few of them. According to Greek legend, Bellerophon the Valiant, the son of the King of Corinth, captured Pegasus the winged horse who took him into a battle against the triple headed monster, Chimera. In an Ancient Greek legend, King Minos imprisoned an engineer named Daedalus and with his son Icarus they made wings of wax and feathers. Daedalus flew successfully from Crete to Naples, but Icarus tried to fly too high and flew too near to the sun, so the wings of wax melted and Icarus fell to his death in the ocean. It is also said that King Kaj Kaoos of Persia attached eagles to his throne and flew around his kingdom, whilst Alexander the Great harnessed four great mythical winged animals called Griffins to a basket and flew around his realm. But in fact I understand it was around 400 BC that the Chinese first made kites that could fly in the air and this started us thinking about flying. To begin with, kites were used by the Chinese in religious ceremonies and they built many colourful ones for fun, then later more sophisticated kites were used to test weather conditions. Kites have been as important to the invention of flight as they were the forerunner to balloons and gliders. We have tested our ability to fly by attaching feathers or lightweight wood to our arms to enable us to fly naturally but the results were often disastrous as the muscles of human arms are simply not like the wings of birds and do not have the required strength. But an ancient Greek engineer named Hero of Alexandria worked with air pressure and steam to create sources of power and one of the experiments he developed was the ‘aeolipile’ which used jets of steam to create rotary motion. Hero mounted a sphere on top of a water kettle, a fire below the kettle turned the water into steam and the gas then travelled through pipes to the sphere. Then two L-shaped tubes on opposite sides of the sphere allowed the gas to escape, which gave a thrust to the sphere that caused it to rotate. Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480’s and he had over 100 drawings that illustrated his theories on flight, but his Ornithopter flying machine was never actually created. Though it was a design that he created to show how man could fly and the modern day helicopter is based on this concept. The two brothers Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier were inventors of the first hot air balloon and they used the smoke from a fire to blow hot air into a silk bag which was attached to a basket. The hot air then rose and allowed the balloon to become lighter than air. In 1783 the first passengers in the colourful balloon were a sheep, rooster and duck. It climbed to a height of about 6,000 feet and travelled more than 1 mile and after this first success, the brothers began to send men up in balloons. The first manned flight was on November 21, 1783, the passengers were Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent. Meanwhile, George Cayley worked to discover a way that man could fly. He designed many different versions of gliders that used the movements of the body to control and a young boy, whose name is not known, was the first to fly one of his gliders. Over fifty years Cayley made improvements to the gliders, changing the shape of the wings so that the air would flow over them correctly. He also designed a tail for the gliders, to help with the stability. He tried a biplane design to add strength to the glider and recognised that there would be a need for power if the flight was to be in the air for a long time. Cayley also wrote ‘On Ariel Navigation’ which showed that a fixed-wing aircraft with a power system for propulsion and a tail to assist in the control of the airplane would be the best way to allow man to fly. A German engineer, Otto Lilienthal, studied aerodynamics and worked to design a glider that would fly. He was the first person to design a glider that could fly a person and which was able to fly long distances. He was fascinated by the idea of flight. Based on his studies of birds and how they flew, he wrote a book on aerodynamics that was then published in 1889 and this text was used by the Wright Brothers as the basis for their designs. Around the same time, Samuel Langley who was an astronomer realised that power was needed to help man fly. He built a model of an aircraft which he called an ‘aerodrome’ that included a steam-powered engine and in 1891, his model flew for three-quarters of a mile before running out of fuel. Langley then received a $50,000 grant to build a full sized ‘aerodrome’, but it was too heavy to fly and it crashed. He was of course very disappointed at this and gave up trying to fly. His major contributions to flight involved attempts at adding a power plant to a glider, he was well known too as the director of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC in the U.S.A.
Orville and Wilbur Wright were very deliberate in their quest for flight. First, they read about all the early developments of flight. They decided to make “a small contribution” to the study of flight control by twisting their wings in flight. Then they began to test their ideas with a kite. They learned about how the wind would help with the flight and how it could affect the surfaces once up in the air and using a methodical approach concentrating on the controllability of the aircraft, the brothers built and tested a series of kite and glider designs from 1898 to 1902 before attempting to build a proper powered design. The gliders worked, but not as well as the Wrights had expected based on the experiments and writings of their predecessors. Their first full-size glider, launched in 1900, had only about half the lift they anticipated. Their second glider, built the following year, performed even more poorly, but rather than giving up, the Wrights constructed their own wind tunnel and created a number of sophisticated devices to measure lift and drag on the 200 wing designs they tested. As a result, the Wrights corrected earlier mistakes in their calculations and along with much testing and calculating they produced a third glider with a higher aspect ratio and true three-axis control. They flew it successfully hundreds of times in 1902, and it performed far better than the previous models. The next step was to test the shapes of gliders much like George Cayley did when he was testing the many different shapes that would fly. Finally, with a perfected glider shape, they turned their attention to how to create a propulsion system that would create the thrust needed to fly. The early engine that they designed generated almost 12 horsepower, that is the same power as two hand-propelled lawn mower engines! The “Flyer” lifted from level ground to the north of Big Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, at 10:35 a.m., on December 17, 1903. Orville piloted the plane which weighed about six hundred pounds. The first heavier than air flight traveled one hundred twenty feet in twelve seconds. The two brothers took turns flying that day with the fourth and last flight covering 850 feet in 59 seconds, but the Flyer was unstable and very hard to control. The brothers returned to Dayton, Ohio, where they worked for two more years perfecting their design and finally, on October 5, 1905, Wilbur piloted the Flyer III for 39 minutes and for about 24 miles in circles around Huffman Prairie. He flew the first practical aircraft until it ran out of fuel. By using a rigorous system of experimentation, involving wind-tunnel testing of airfoils and flight testing of full-size prototypes, the Wrights not only built a working aircraft the following year but also helped advance the science of aeronautical engineering. The brothers appear to have been the first to make serious studied attempts to simultaneously solve both the power and control problems. These problems proved difficult, but they never lost interest, eventually solving them. Then, almost as an afterthought, they designed and built a low-powered internal combustion engine. They also designed and carved wooden propellers that were more efficient than any before, enabling them to gain adequate performance from their low engine power. Whilst many aviation pioneers appeared to leave safety largely to chance, the Wrights’ design was greatly influenced by the need to teach themselves to fly without unreasonable risk to life and limb, by surviving crashes! This emphasis, as well as low engine power, was the reason for low flying speed and for taking off in a headwind. Performance, rather than safety, was the reason for the rear-heavy design because the wing designs made the aircraft less affected by crosswinds and easier to fly. Since then, many new aeroplanes along with different engines have been developed to help transport people, luggage, cargo, military personnel and weapons around the globe, but their advances were all based on these first flights by the Wright Brothers.
In fact the history of aviation extends for more than two thousand years, from the earliest forms such as kites, even attempts at tower jumping all the way through to supersonic flight by powered, heavier-than-air jets. The discovery of hydrogen gas in the 18th century led to the invention of the hydrogen balloon at almost exactly the same time that the Montgolfier brothers rediscovered the hot-air balloon and began manned flights. With various theories in mechanics by physicists during the same period of time, notably fluid dynamics and Newton’s Laws of Motion led to the foundation of modern aerodynamics. Balloons, both free-flying and tethered, began to be used for military purposes from the end of the 18th century, with the French government establishing Balloon Companies during the Revolution. Experiments with gliders provided the groundwork for heavier-than-air craft and by the early 20th century advances in engine technology and aerodynamics made controlled, powered flight possible for the first time. The modern aeroplane with its characteristic tail was established by 1909 and from then on its history became tied to the development of more and more powerful engines. The first great ships of the air were the rigid dirigible balloons pioneered by Ferdinand Von Zeppelin, a name which soon became synonymous with airships and dominated long-distance flight until the 1930s, when large flying boats became popular. The ‘pioneer’ era from 1903 to 1914 also saw the development of practical aeroplanes and airships and their early application, alongside balloons and kites, for private, sport and military use. Eventually though, flight became an established technology and over a period of a few years more controls were added, providing a recognition of powered flight as something other than the preserve of dreamers and eccentrics. Such things as ailerons, also radio-telephones and guns were included and it was not long before aircraft were shooting at each other, but the lack of any sort of steady point for the gun was a problem. The French solved this problem when, in late 1914, Roland Garros attached a fixed machine gun to the front of his aircraft. Aviators were styled as modern-day knights, doing individual combat with their enemies. Several pilots became famous for their air-to-air combat, the most well known being Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the ‘Red Baron’, who shot down eighty planes in air-to air combat using several different planes, the most celebrated of which was a red triplane, that being one fitted with three wings. France, Britain, Germany, and Italy were the leading manufacturers of fighter planes that saw action during the war, then in the years between the two World Wars there was really great advancements in aircraft technology. Aircraft evolved from low-powered biplanes and triplanes made from wood and fabric to sleek, high-powered monoplanes made of aluminium, based primarily on the founding work of Hugo Junkers during the World War I and its adoption by other designers. As a result, the age of the great rigid airships came and went. The first successful flying machines that used rotary wings appeared in the form of the autogyro which was first flown in 1919. In that design, the rotor is not powered but is spun like a windmill by its passage through the air whilst a separate power-plant is used to propel the aircraft forwards. Helicopters were developed and in the 1930s, development of the jet engine began in Germany and in Britain and both countries would go on to develop jet aircraft by the end of World War II. This era saw a great increase in the pace of development and production, not only of aircraft but also the associated flight-based weapon delivery systems. Air combat tactics and doctrines took advantage. Large-scale strategic bombing campaigns were launched, fighter escorts introduced and the more flexible aircraft and weapons allowed precise attacks on small targets with various types of attack aircraft. Also, new technologies like radar allowed more coordinated and controlled deployment of air defence.
The first jet aircraft to fly was the German Heinkel He178 in 1939, followed by the world’s first operational jet aircraft, the Me262 in July 1942. British developments like the Gloster Meteor followed afterwards, but these saw only brief use in World War II. Also, jet and rocket aircraft had only limited impact due to their late introduction, fuel shortages, also the real lack of experienced pilots as well as the declining war industry of Germany. In the latter part of the 20th century, the advent of digital electronics produced great advances in flight instrumentation and “fly-by-wire” systems with the 21st century bringing the large-scale use of pilotless drones for military, civilian and leisure use, also inherently unstable aircraft such as ‘flying wings’ becoming possible with their use of digital controls.
Also after World War II, commercial aviation grew rapidly, using mostly ex-military aircraft to transport people and cargo. By 1952, the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) had introduced the Comet into their scheduled service. Whilst a technical achievement, the plane suffered a series of highly public failures as the shape of its windows led to cracks due to metal fatigue. The fatigue was caused by cycles of pressurisation and depressurisation of the cabin and eventually led to catastrophic failure of the plane’s fuselage. By the time the problems were overcome by making the windows oval rather than square-shaped, other jet airliner designs had already taken to the skies. Much more could be written here about the changes, including the ‘jet age’, supersonic flight, even getting into space but I think that will be for another time. Suffice to say that 21st-century aviation has seen increasing interest in fuel savings and fuel diversification, as well as low-cost airlines and facilities. Also, much of the developing world that did not have good access to air transport has been steadily adding aircraft and facilities, though severe congestion remains a problem in many up and coming nations. But we continue to strive, to develop. On 19 April 2021, the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) flew successfully an unmanned helicopter on Mars, making it humanity’s first controlled powered flight on another planet. ‘Ingenuity’ rose to a height of 3 metres and hovered in a stable holding position for 30 seconds, after a vertical take-off that was filmed by its accompanying rover, ‘Perseverance’. Then on 22 April 2021, ‘Ingenuity’ made a second, more complex flight, which was also observed by ‘Perseverance’. As an homage to all of its aerial predecessors, the ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter carries with it a very small, postage-stamp sized fragment from the wing of the 1903 Wright Flyer.
It just goes to show how some historical events aren’t remembered. Back in 2016, on the television quiz show ‘Pointless’, a relatively young contestant chose to answer the question “Who was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas?”. They answered, somewhat hesitatingly, “J.R.?”, meaning J.R. Ewing from an American television soap opera which was aired on American tv from 1978 to 1991. The correct answer was John F. Kennedy, the former president of the United States, on November 22, 1963.