History of Aviation: Aircrafts Through Time
Mankind has extended efforts in perusing the skies with man-made flying objects
for over 2,000 years. The history of aviation began with the invention of kites
and gliders, before emerging to the multimillion dollar aircraft industry of modern
era. The origin of the first man-made flying objects were kites circa 200 B.C. in
China. Leonardo da Vinci expressed his dream of flight in several of his paintings
circa the 15th century; however, his dream never manifested into a constructed
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the discovery of hydrogen
led to the first development of the hydrogen balloon, which carried people away
at high altitudes and across several miles. In the 19th century, tethered
balloons were used to transport people and observe battles safely above ground as
they took place. Other scientific discoveries developed a variety of theories in
mechanics that became the backbone of Isaac Newton's laws of motion and fluid dynamics,
which eventually led to the development of modern aerodynamics. In the early 20th
century, gliders became the groundwork for massive aircraft, engine technology,
and further developments in aerodynamics.
The Earliest Attempts
In 400 B.C., a Grecian scholar by the name of Archytas, designed and constructed
a steam-powered aircraft modeled after the shape of a bird. According to scholars
of that time, “The Pigeon” was reputed to have flown approximately two hundred meters
on a suspended string. The first attempt at moving objects through the air was in
the form of kites around 200 B.C. in China. In fact, a Chinese military officer
flew a kite over enemy lines in a mission to determine the length of tunnel it would
take to storm an attack. During this invasion, a Chinese prince attached himself
to the same kite in order to save himself. The invention of the Kongming latern,
an oil lamp glowing under a large paper bag that floated in the midnight sky, helped
General Zhuge Liang defeat his enemies by scaring them into thinking he was helped
by a divine force.
Hot air balloons were known in China since about the 3rd century B.C.
In the 5th century B.C.E., Lu Ban invented a large kite made from wood.
In the 1st century A.D., Xiong Nu bound himself with a bird feather and
glided about one hundred meters before finally landing. Yuan Huangtou was the first
manned kite glide to depart from a tower. The oil lamps became popular during popular
festivities, and may have filtered into the Middle East through the Silk Road.
Eilmel Malmesbury, an English monk, successfully flew a glider for about two hundred
meters before sustaining injuries. Leonardo da Vinci expressed his dream of flight
in several of his paintings circa the 15th century; however, his dream
never manifested into a constructed flying vessel.
In 1647, Tito Livio Burattini built a model aircraft with four pairs of fixed glider
wings. It was reported that the four-winged aircraft lifted a cat in 1648; however,
it never supported the weight of a human passenger.
In 1670, Francesco Terzi released a published work that contained a theory that
supported the possibility of lighter-than-air flying vessels using copper foil cylinders
with a vacuum. While his theory was not entirely wrong, he forgot to figure that
the surrounding atmosphere would crush the spheres.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the discovery of hydrogen
led to the invention of the hydrogen balloon, which carried people away at high
altitudes and across several miles. In 1783, five inventors achieved several innovative
designs in the history of aviation.
- June 4th, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers displayed their hot air balloon,
a design that did not support a human passenger.
- August 27th, 1783, Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers deployed the
first hydrogen balloon, a design that did not support a human passenger.
- October 19th, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers deployed the first manned
flight using a tethered balloon with several humans aboard.
- November 21st, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers deployed the first unrestrained
flight with passengers. All three passengers drifted in the hot air balloon for
about five miles powered by wood fire.
- December 1st, 1783, Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert deployed
their first manned hydrogen balloon in front of a crowd numbering four hundred thousand.
Both ascended to altitude of 1,800 feet, and finally landed after a flight lasting
approximately two hours and five minutes.
The hot air balloon became extremely popular during the late Eighteenth century,
which furthered the discovery of the correlation between altitude and atmosphere.
Inventors attempted to create a hot air balloon that could be easily steered.
Scholars cite Henri Giffard as the first to fly a lighter-than-air steam-engine
craft in 1852. Giffard flew for a total of 15 miles in France. In the United States,
non-steerable hot air balloons were used during the American Civil War by the Union.
- In 1863, Ferdinand von Zepplin was the first passenger to fly with the Union Army
- In 1884, Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs powered the first Army electric-powered
ship in free-flight.
Despite these advancements, lighter-than-air craft were temporarily short-lived
and not very durable. Regular controlled flights of modern era did not emerge until
the introduction of the internal combustion engine during the Industrial Revolution.
Even though airships were used during the First and Second World War, heavier-than-air
craft greatly overshadowed their existence. The first aircraft to make route controlled
flights were blimps. Alberto Santos-Dumont was the first pilot to successfully fly
a non-rigid airship equipped with an internal combustion engine.
In 1901, Santos-Dumont flew his airship called the “Number 6” over Paris and around
the Eiffel Tower in under thirty minutes. He became a successful designer and builder
of several kinds of aircraft. Rigid body dirigible aircraft were also becoming advanced
during this time. Ferdinand von Zeppelin was the pioneer of dirigible design. In
1899, he began working on the first Zeppelin airship. Zepplin's prototype airship,
also known as the Luftschiff Zeppelin 1 (LZ 1), was equipped with two Daimler engines.
- In 1900, the first Zeppelin launched and lasted for only eighteen minutes before
begin forced to land on a lake due to mechanical problems.
- In 1902, Leonardo Torres Quevedo built his own version of the Zeppelin and modified
the balancing problems.
- History of Airplanes:
A ThinkQuest article that covers the history of the airplane.
- How Did We Learn
to Fly Like the Birds?: NAASA teaches kids how humans learned to fly like birds.
The Wright Brothers' 1900 Kite and Glider Experiments: The United States Centennial
Flight Commission provides historical documentation the earliest 1900 kite and glider
- Timeline of Flight:
The Library of Congress covers the extensive timeline of flight beginning with 1,000
B.C.E. to 2000.
- Aviation: From Sand Dunes
to Sonic Booms: The National Park Service provides an extensive list of essays
that describe the development of aviation.
Mysterious Flight (PDF): A thematic unit that describes the development of flight
through human history.
Before the First Flight (PDF): A teacher's module that helps guides students
to understanding the roots of the modern-day aviation.
- Early History of
Aviation (PDF): An outline that covers the early history of aviation, including
the natural philosophers, experimentalists and theorists, visionaries, and the pioneers
to made it all come together.
- Historical Aircraft of
the Navy: The United States Navy shares a modest list of historical attack,
fighter, patrol, helicopters, torpedo bombers, general purpose, transportation,
dive bombing, observation, and anti-submarine aircraft.
A Short History of Aircraft Survivability (PDF): An abstract paper that describes
the endurance of aircraft before it finally hits the can.
Samuel Pierpont Langley became one of the first pioneers to seriously probe into
the field of aerodynamics. In 1869, Langley built the Aerodrome No. 5, an unmanned
heavier-than-air craft, and successfully launched it on a sustained flight. After
successfully launching the Aerodrome No. 5 and No. 6, Langley began searching for
funding to build a manned version of the Aerodrome, which was granted by the United
States government after the turn of the Spanish-American War. It was funded for
the sole purpose of spying on the enemy. Unfortunately, Langley's design was too
frail to hold itself together.
The Wright Brothers designed and tested numerous kite and glider models between
1900 to 1902. Deeply disappointed in these designs, the Wrights built a wind tunnel
and then created numerous devices that were used to measure the lift and drag on
over two hundred wing designs. The Wrights finally found satisfaction with their
third glider as it outperformed its predecessors and rigorous testing contributed
to the field of aeronautical engineering. The Wrights were the first to seriously
study the existing power and control problems. They discovered the solution to the
control problem by developing wing warping for roll control, yaw control, and a
steerable rudder. The Wrights made the first sustained, manned heavier-than-air
flight on December 17th 1903. According to historians, the Wrights seemed
to have the most advanced knowledge on heavier-than-air navigation during their
In 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont announced his first takeoff with his machine entitled,
“14-bis,” in Paris. He set the world record by flying two hundred and twenty meters
in twenty one and a half seconds. Santos-Dumont was responsible for adding movable
surfaces to the wings in order to gain lateral stability. Santos-Dumont made the
Demoiselle monoplane, which was employed as Santos-Dumont's personal transportation.
In 1908, he began working with the Clement-Bayard company to build the Demoiselle
No. 19; the world's first mass produced aircraft.
- In 1877, Enrico Forlanini developed the first steam-powered, unmanned helicopter.
It lifted thirteen meters off the ground, and remained there for twenty seconds.
- In 1907, Paul Cornu developed the first manned helicopter that rose off the ground.
The military started using airplanes as soon as they were invented. Italy was the
first country to use airplanes for military purposes. They used planes to bomb and
shell during the Turkish-Italian War in Libya; however, the first planes were used
for offensive and a defensive purpose was during the First World War.
- In 1914, Roland Garros affixed a machine gun to the tip of his plane, effectively
making him the first “ace.”
- In 1915, Kurt Wintgens won his first aerial victory with a fighter plane equipped
with a built-in machine gun.
During the Second World War, all countries advanced their development and production
of aircraft and flight-based weapons systems. Military's from the around the world
used strategic bombers, dive bombers, fighter bombers, and ground attack aircraft.
The advent of the radar gave more room for coordinated and controlled deployment.
In 1942, the world's first jet-powered bomber launched entitled, the “Arado Ar 234.”
Helicopters also saw rapid development during World War II.
In the commercial aviation sector, the Concorde passenger jet plane retired during
the early 21st century. It was fuel hungry and could only carry a limited
amount of passengers; however, it made room for emerging airlines, such as British
Airways. Commercial airliners may become a thing of the past, because of full-scale
attempts by military aviation to focus on the elimination of piloted planes. The
introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may make this a possibility in the
future. In 2003, the first autonomous flight across the Atlantic Ocean was successfully
completed by a computer-controlled model aircraft. This could contribute greatly
to the national defense against terrorist attacks, where the country became vulnerable
to hijacked aircraft. In addition, it will contribute greatly to unmanned surveillance
over city borders.