In the early 1890s German engineer Otto Lilienthal was the only person in the world flying with Wings. Crowds flocked to witness
his flight experiments in the Berlin suburb of Lichterfelde, where he had built an artificial hill from which to take off. He would stride down into the wind until borne aloft by his bird-like wings. Swinging from side to side or back and forth to maintain balance, he sometimes flew for several hundred metres before returning to earth.
This riveting spectacle smacked more of the circus than of science, yet Lilienthal was a serious researcher, convinced that the only way to understand flight was “by actual flying experiments”. His flight trials received worldwide publicity, attracting the attention, among others, of Wilbur and Orville Wright in Dayton, Ohio.
Lilienthal’s most reliable glider was the eleventh that he designed. Called the Normal- Segelapparat (“standard sailing machine”), it was a simple willow structure covered with English shirting material. In this hang-glider Lilienthal achieved flights of up to 820ft.
He sold or presented eight No. lis to other would-be experimenters, some of whom baulked at entrusting their lives to such a flimsy structure. It was while living his No. 11,on 9 August 1896, that Lilienthal met his death. The glider was gusted to a halt. Stalled, and side-slipped into the ground.
Tragically, Lilienthal’s spine was broken and he died the following day.