Although mankind has mastered flight only in the last hundred years, humans have been attempting to emulate the birds for centuries. Some have even strapped on wings and jumped from great heights, only to leant the hard way that there is a lot more to flying than simply flapping your amis. The first flying machines to be historically documented were kites, which were built in China over two thousand years ago. Large enough to carry people into the sky, they were used mainly by armies for keeping tabs on enemy movements. There is no evidence, though, of these early kites evolving into true gliders. In fact, the first machines to fly without being tethered to the ground did not even liave wings.

In November 1783, Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes became the first people to take to the air in a balloon, which was built in France by the Montgolfier brothers and used hot air for lift. The first hydrogen-filled balloon took flight, also in France, just a few days later. By the 1800s, balloons were being used around the world, not only by civilians for recreation, but also by the military for reconnaissance and for aiming artillery. The next significant development, pioneered in 1852 by French engineer Henri Giffard, was the airship, or blimp—a powered balloon capable of being steered in any direction. While airships continued to grow and evolve through the late 1930s, the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937, dramatically captured on film, understandably dampened the public’s enthusiasm for this form of transport. The crucial factor that ended the need for airships, though, was the emergence of the airplane.  The first piloted winged aircraft was a glider created by Sir George Cayley in 1853. Cayley established the importance of stability, control, and balance, proving among other things that it was not necessary for wings to flap in order to enable flight. In the years to follow, several people expanded on Cayley’s ideas. The most prolific glider designer and pilot by the end of the 1800s was the German Olio Lilienthal, who logged thousands of flights in the eighteen different gliders he designed. He also made a significant contribution to the history of flying with Bird Flight as the Basis of Aviation. The book inspired many people, including two young brothers from Dyton, Ohio, who would change the course of aviation history.  The Wright brothers picked up where Lilienthal left off at his death. Recognizing that Lilienthal’s method of controlling his gliders was inadequate, he would simply shift his weight as a means of directing the glider up or down, left or right—the Wrights systematically devised flight controls that changed the angle of the wings and tail as a means of guiding their craft. (Remarkably, the system of controls they developed is still in use today.) The Wrights applied their new principles to a series of gliders, making over two thousand flights before attempting to add an engine. Since no lightweight engines or propellers existed, the brothers developed their own, achieving considerable success—their propeller was nearly as efficient as any modern-day design. On December 17, 1903, in an airplane aptly named the Flyer (see page 14), the Wright brothers made four short flights that inaugurated the era of powered aviation. They improved on their original design in 1904 and again in 1905 with the Flyer III, which is regarded as the first practical airplane. By 1906—before anyone else in the world had made a powered flight the Wrights had covered distances up to twenty-four miles in flights lasting up to thirty minutes.

The next pilot to take to the skies—or at least leave the ground—was the Brazilian-horn Alberto Santos-Dumont, who flew his plane, 14bis,  a grand total of twenty-three feet on September 13, 1906. Although several European would-be aviators made modest hops, no one aside from the Wrights did any true flying until 1908, when the brothers demonstrated their Model A in Europe and sparked a flurry of aircraft production. By 1910, small aircraft wen being manufactured by Bleriot and Voisin in France and Wright and Curtiss in the United States, and performance had improved enough to allow flight across the English Channel and over the Alps.