The Early History of the Airplane

Human beings have always longed to fly. When our early ancestors were gazing at the heavens it’s highly likely that they cast an occasional and envious eye towards the birds soaring above them. History is littered with tales of dreamers and ‘flying’ monks who confidently strapped a pair of wings onto their arms, threw themselves off the nearest church tower and flapped their way to eternity. Even Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by the possibility of human flight. Yet all those early speculators made one fundamental mistake in their thinking: They thought that to inhabit the domain of the birds you had to fly like a bird.

The first proper human flights were carried out in the late 18th century when a few brave souls took to the skies in hot-air balloons. Those early flights drew huge crowds of astonished onlookers, but balloons were impractical and dependent on the vagaries of the wind. The real way forward would be in the development of a controllable heavier-than-air machine, and the first man to think seriously about such a machine and make a serious study of aerodynamics was an Englishman, George Cayley.

Cayley had been fascinated by reports of flying balloons, and at the beginning of 19th century he began to explore the theory of flight in a scientific manner. Caley’s greatest progression was in the realization that wings should cease to be a means of propulsion but, instead, be used simply to generate lift. He experimented with wing shapes (airfoils) and angles of attack. He built gliders with vertical rudders and horizontal tail-planes. He even built a rudimentary wind tunnel to study the effects of drag on his wing shapes. Unfortunately for Caley he was a man before his time. As he himself put it, “Human flight was a subject rather ludicrous in the public’s estimation.”

By the second half of the 19th century the subject of powered flight was beginning to be taken seriously. Those working towards the perfection of a flying machine were effectively split into two groups: There were those preoccupied with discovering a practical means of propulsion, and those more concerned with studying the effects of flight when in the air. The work of the first group was made much easier with the invention of the internal combustion engine in the 1880’s, an engine much more practical (and lighter) than its predecessor, the steam engine. The second group made progress with the work of pioneers like the German, Otto Lilienthal, and the French-born American, Octave Chanute. Both men built and flew gliders (similar to the hang gliders of today) and made great strides in understanding the flight characteristics of their machines. The breakthrough would come when glider and engine were successfully brought together. That breakthrough would be made by an unlikely pair of pioneers.

Two brothers in Dayton, Ohio, USA, Orville and Wilbur Wright, became interested in the work of Otto Lilienthal and began their own aeronautical experiments in 1899. They gathered together all the available books and papers written on the subject of flight and after considerable and methodical study they set about building their first experimental glider in the workshop of the bicycle business they owned and ran. They asked the US Weather Bureau to suggest a ‘windy place’ to fly it; The Bureau suggested The North Carolina coast, so in September 1900 they set off to fly their glider.

For two years the brothers made visits to the coast to test a series of gliders. By the end of 1902 they had perfected the stability of their machines. Wing-warping allowed lateral banking of their gliders and controllable elevators sticking out at the front controlled the pitch. Their last development was a link between the movable rear rudder and the wing-warping mechanism to give smooth control. When they went back to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in September 1903 they had added a small petroleum engine and two propellers to their glider and were ready to attempt a powered flight. Despite a few problems with the engine and propellers they were ready to make an attempt on 17th December. At 10am, with Orville Wright at the controls, the ‘Wright Flyer’ was released from its restraining ropes and sped along a wooden rail on its trolley to raise itself briefly into the air. The flight lasted 12 seconds. On the fourth and last flight of the day, Wilbur Wright flew the aircraft for a distance of 852 ft, staying aloft for almost a minute. Man could fly. Apart from the two brothers, the only other witnesses to that historic achievement were two men, two boys and a dog! In the next two years the brothers continued their developments and by 1905 their Flyer III was capable of flying for over 30 minutes and covering distances of over 20 miles. The Wright brothers were the only people in the world with a working flying machine.

In Europe, work on the development of flying machines had been going on for years but with little success. The French were especially keen to move out front in the race for the air but it was a Paris based Brazilian, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who eventually made the first powered flight in Europe when his ungainly and primitive machine, the 14 bis, made a series of ‘hops’ in 1906, eventually managing around 800 ft. That was nothing compared to the capabilities of the Wright Flyer III but it was a start. The way was now open to the French to dominate the airplane business because in 1905 the Wright brothers had decided to halt their developments to concentrate on commercially exploiting their machine.

In Paris in 1907 the Voisin brothers opened the first airplane factory, producing airplanes very similar to the Wright Flyer III. In that year, spurred on by large cash prizes offered by newspapers and tycoons, a number of adventurous aviators, most flying Voisin machines, attempted to stretch the capabilities of their craft. In that year, a businessman, Louis Bleriot, flew a front-powered monoplane for the first time. Two years later he would be the first man to fly the English Channel. In 1908, spurred on by the exploits of their European rivals, the Wright brothers decided to take a Wright flyer III across the Atlantic to show what it could do. Wilbur Wright wowed the French crowds and left them in no doubt that the Wrights were indeed the first of the few. A contemporary French journalist alluded to “the masterly assurance and incomparable elegance” of Wilbur Wright’s flying.

In 1909 the world’s first air-show was held at Reims and most of the leading pilots and machines were there (a number of them crashed). Among the pilots was the flamboyant American, Glenn. H. Curtiss, who had flown his first machine, the ‘June Bug’, the previous year. Curtiss specialized in speed and won a small fortune in prize money. He also pioneered the use of ailerons, a development that replaced wing-warping. He eventually started his own company and by the outbreak of WWI was the largest airplane manufacturer in the US.

The developments of airplanes gathered pace in the years leading up to WWI and so did the expectations of onlookers. ‘Stunt’ flying became popular and a number of women joined their male counterparts in the skies. In 1911, a Belgian aviatrix, Helene Dutrieu, broke the airspeed record, and America’s first female pilot, Harriet Quimby, crossed the English Channel in 1912. In 1913, a Russian, Pyotr Nesterov, was the first to fly loop the loop. Airplanes were flying higher, faster and longer distances every month. Yet by 1914 the aircraft business had become an industry. No longer did individuals like the Wright brothers call the shots. The innocence had gone and ironically it would take a cataclysmic event to fully exploit the potential of the airplane: World War I.

The decade or so between that historic morning in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and the first shots of the Great War was truly an extraordinary one. The early aviators really were magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines. The airplane is a huge testimony to the ingenuity and perseverance of human beings. When we look now at the faces in old photographs of those pioneer flyers we see men facing danger and uncertainty, but we also see the spark of genius and, just perhaps, a glint in the eye which tells us they were having one hell of a good time!


R G Grant, Flight, Dorling Kindersley Ltd.