On the windy morning of December 17, 1903, Orville Wright looked out onto a sandy beach in North Carolina and prepared, for the first time in human history, to fly. He and his brother Wilbur had been experimenting with flying machines for four years, and only a few days before, Wilbur had tried and failed to complete the first flight with their newest invention. But from watching his brother, Orville had picked up on the reasons behind some critical errors and this time, with the help of an impressive 27mph tailwind, Orville glided his plane into history.
This moment is widely accepted as the beginning of humanity’s journey into the sky…but is this really where our journey began? History shows that humans were thinking about flight long before the Wright brothers were born. Let’s take a look at some of the major achievements that led us to be the aerial globetrotters that we are today.
Early Attempts at Flight
Some sources cite Chinese kites as some of the earliest meditations on human flight. Nowadays, kites are a popular form of entertainment, but as early as 400 BC, Chinese cultures were just beginning to invent the first kite. Kites demonstrate the four key forces that eventually helped us figure out how to make airplanes fly: lift, weight, thrust, and drag.
When humans started thinking scientifically about launching themselves into flight, their first instinct was to emulate birds by creating a machine that flapped its wings to maintain height. Many scientists and inventors – including artist Leonardo Da Vinci -- struggled with this concept for many years. Finally, they determined that just because that’s how birds fly, to propel something much heavier than a bird – say, a human – they must take a different approach. It wasn’t until the 18th century that a man named George Cayley concluded that it wasn’t just flapping that allowed a bird to fly, but the unique, curved shape of its wings. This discovery led to the fixed, slightly curved wings that we’re used to seeing on aircrafts today.
Hot Air Balloons
In the end, it wasn’t a plane that sent a man into the air, but a hot air balloon! In 1783, brothers Jacques and Joseph Montgolfier invented the first hot air balloon out of a real silk bag, which they filled with the smoke from a fire. The bag captured the smoke and the hot air, which rises naturally, pushed the balloon, and anything attached to it, into the sky. But humans weren’t the first creature to try out this invention. To make sure that the hot air balloon was safe, the Montgolfier brothers first sent up a basket with a sheep, a rooster, and a duck!
Flying Today…And Beyond
Since that morning in 1903 when the Wright brothers took to the sky, air travel has made many impressive advancements. Air travel has become a part of many people’s regular, sometimes even daily, lives. It is far more common nowadays to meet someone who has been on an airplane than to meet someone who has never flown. Now that we seemingly have conquered the sky, many scientists are working on sending even more powerful aircrafts into the next frontier: space!
This Saturday, August 19th, is National Aviation Day! One of my favorite aeronautical activities is going to my nearest airport and watching the planes take off and land, sometimes so close that it looks like they are headed right for you! Whatever you do this Saturday, make sure to reflect on the amazing history of human flight by learning more about how planes, space shuttles, or even the anatomically incredible birds in our world fly! And if you learn any interesting aviation facts, make sure to share them with us on social media!