Top 10 Misconceptions About the Invention of the Airplane

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Human Flight!

From the earliest days of human civilization we have been obsessed with flight.  The ancient Greek story of Daedalus and Icarus (who, so the story goes, glued bird wings on their back to escape the island of Crete) shows  the fascination people had with solving the problems of staying airborne.

In 1903, at the time of the first acknowledged powered flight armies fought ground based wars with cavalry, infantry and horse drawn artillery, aerial observation, in so far as it was made at all was done by balloon.  The First World War – just a few years later saw aircraft used in reconnaissance, bombings and the now famous aerial dog flights.  By the end of the 20th century we could fly into space, take off and land from ships, fly faster than the speed of sound, use aircraft for recreational purposes and as the mainstay of the world’s international transport network.

We are all taught that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane and made the first successful powered and manned flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 – but is this all there is to know about the invention of the aircraft?  Is it even true or had others successfully taken to the skies before the Wright Brothers left the ground?   Here are our top 10 interesting facts about the aircraft and its invention.

  1. The First Recorded Human Flight Took Place In The 9th Century


First Human Flight happened in 9th Century. Feathers Played a large role.
First Human Flight happened in 9th Century. Feathers Played a large role.

Ibn Firnas, a doctor a the Muslim court in Cordoba, Spain jumped off a high wall wearing a suit of feathers and bird wings strapped to his arms and legs.  When he jumped from the wall he was able to glide a while and even, according to observers, ascend a little.  He found it difficult to land because he did not understand the way in which a tail operates to stabilize flight.

After the achievements of Ibn Fernas others tried to understand the mechanics of and achieve human flight.  Jumping off towers with a variety of contraptions, cloaks, feathers etc most of these experiments resulted in death or serious injury.

Kites may have been used for human flight in China and Japan from around the 7th century.  Certainly Marco Polo reported seeing men flying in kites and Japanese folk stories refer to kites being used to allow men to fly and there may have been laws outlawing this practice.

  1. Leonardo Da Vinci Understood the Science Behind Flight
Leo and his ornithopter.  A true visionary
Leo and his ornithopter. A true visionary

Leonardo Da Vinci was more than just a famous painter.  In addition to painting some of the best known works of the renaissance he was also employed as a military inventor.  He drew designs for a number of concepts that were far ahead of their time and would not actually be re-invented, or built, for many hundreds of years.

He understood the potential advantages that aerial observation would give an army and designed a number of flying contraptions.  Many of these were so called ‘ornithopters’ – designs that require a person to flap wings.  This is a fundamental design flaw as the human body is not capable of doing this for any real length of time.

While his flying machines were impractical Leonardo Da Vinci did spend a lot of time observing and understanding the mechanism of flight in birds.  By 1505 he had written his  Codex on the Flight of Birds, in this he demonstrates an understanding of the basic laws of aerodynamics – a vital prerequisite for engineering human flight,  Thus included an understanding of  lift (the action of air pressure that allows a plane to take off and fly), stalls (where a plane flies at an angle that gives insufficient lift and then falls), the mechanisms of gliding and the need for a tail to balance.

  1. The First Functioning Flying Machines Were Balloons
Balloons. You must be kidding.
Balloons. You must be kidding.

As early as 1670 Francesco Lana de Terzi was postulating that human flight would be possible by using balloons to lift a ship into the air.   About a century later in 1783 the Montgolfier brothers launched the first tethered  manned balloon flight, heating the air within the balloon envelope to allow the balloon to rise.  A month later they launched the first free balloon flight and travelled 8 kilometres.

Around the same time Jaques Charles and another pair of French brothers (the Robert brothers) were experimenting with the use of hydrogen in balloons, lighter than air, hydrogen did not need heating to allow the balloon to ascend.  By 1785 balloons were flying much further and even crossing the British Channel from France to the UK.

The main difficulty with using balloons as a means of flight was the difficulty of steering and controlling direction.  The first dirigible (steerable) balloon was designed in 1852.  This led to the development of rigid (Zeppelin) and non rigid (blimps) airships which were used to travel increasingly long distances.

Following a successful Italian trial of using an airship as a bomber many of the participants in World War 1 attempted to use airships both for reconnaissance and bombing.  As incendiary ammunition was developed hydrogen filled airships were proved too vulnerable for such military uses.

After the war there was significant research amongst most of the participants into other potential uses for Airships (the Americans even researched whether it was possible to use an airship as an airborne aircraft carrier).  Airships proved popular for long distance travel (the spire on the Empire State Building was designed a tethering point for transatlantic airships) as they were faster than ships and just as comfortable.  The German airship Graf Zeppelin even circumnavigated the world.

The majority of airships at the time used Hydrogen (a lighter than air element) as the alternative, Helium, was and is extremely scarce.  Hydrogen is extremely flammable and the age of airships came to an end in 1937 when a spark ignited a gas leak in the German Zeppelin Hindenburg.  This highly public disaster led to a public loss of confidence in airships.   Airship routes had never been hugely profitable and around the same time a passenger aircraft capable of crossing the Atlantic came into service.

Airships had proved that they could be used to transport people long distance and were, arguably, the first aircraft.  However, long-term a scarcity of safe resources (Helium is not flammable) meant that they just did not prove viable.  The United States did have some military airships that were used during the Second World War to protect convoys from U Boat attack and some airships are used in the modern day for advertising and there is some ongoing research into military potential.  By and large, however, the airship has given way to the fixed wing aircraft.


  1. A working airplane was built in 17th Century Poland
Poland was instrumental in the origination of human flight.  Is this the same Poland that I know about.  Can't be.
Poland was instrumental in the origination of human flight. Is this the same Poland that I know about. Can’t be.

In 1647 an Italian inventor called Burattini designed a flying dragon for the King of Poland.  His prototype was able to lift a cat into the air and he was paid by the King to develop a full sized aircraft.  The dragon had four pairs of wings – two middle pairs to provide lifting surfaces (showing an understanding of the concept of lift in aerodynamics), a pair to the rear to produce lift and forward movement and a pair at the front for forward motion only.  The wings were operated by a system of cords and pulleys and the ‘dragon’ further had a fully movable tail.  The dragon was designed to fly with three people and tests were run although apparently ‘perfection was never achieved’.  It was the first aircraft design to separate the system providing lift from that providing forward motion and was, therefore, an important milestone in the human understanding of powered flight.

  1. Sir George Cayley, not the Wright Brothers, was the Father of Modern Aviation:
Sir George Caley was the man.
Sir George Caley was the man.

More than 100 years before the first flight at Kitty Hawk Sir George Caley designed the first fixed wing aircraft.Prior to developing the aircraft Cayley studied the science of aerodynamics in depth and made significant contributions to the understanding required to produce flight.  Studying flight in birds he moved to apply these principal to artificial flight – he identified the need to streamline and curve lifting surfaces (to increase lift provided) and started to investigate the principal of power to weight ratio (unlike birds humans are heavy and have comparatively weak muscles – we simply do not have the muscle power to flap wings!).

In 1799 Cayley’s work was the first to show an understanding of the interplay between the drag and lift –  factors that allowed the Wright Brothers to make the first successful powered flight in 1903.  His concept separated the systems the machine would use for lift, motion and control and Cayley subsequently went on to define the current ‘norm’ for airplane design, by designing a craft with a fixed wing (set at a dihedral – i.e. angled upwards)), a fuselage and a tail (to provide stability).  By 1849 Cayley’s research had progressed sufficiently to allow him to design and build a triplane (triple winged) glider which carried a small boy some distance.

  1. Advances in Steam Technology Allowed the Invention of the Propeller in 1842
Steam was cutting edge technology.  Was.
Steam was cutting edge technology. Was.

The power to weight ratio (an airplane has to be light to fly but needs power to propel it forward – engines are heavy) had been a significant stumbling block for all potential developers of aircraft from Da Vinci through to Cayley – the technology simply did not exist to provide their aircraft with enough energy to power forward motion and yet be light enough to allow a machine to lift off the ground.

Developments in steam technology showed that immense power could be harnessed in increasingly small machines – allowing inventors to experiment with the concept of powered rather than un-powered flight.  In 1842 and inspired by Cayley’s designs, William Henson and John Springfellow designed and patented an aircraft with a 50 horse-power, propeller driven steam engine.  They hoped that their Aerial Steam Carriage (called Arial) would transport people and goods for up to 1,000 miles.  With this in mind they set up a company to attract funding for their concept and built several scale models, sadly other than some small hops the models never made it off the ground.

  1. The late 19th Century was Full of Inventors Working to Solve the Problems of Manned Flight With Several Notable Successes
The 19th Century had its share of fly-boys
The 19th Century had its share of fly-boys

Cayley, Henson and Springfellow had shown that flight was possible but that certain scientific questions and problems had to be resolved and the solutions made to work together in one single machine.  In the second half of the 19th Century many scientists and inventors put their minds to solving these problems and this led to significant innovation.  Various inventors put their minds to the problem of wing design, control surfaces (understanding and developing the use of ailerons and rudders) and developing the concept of a wind tunnel to test aircraft designs.

The prototypes designed by these inventors started to look more and more like the early aircraft of the 20th century.  By 1874 a French inventor, du Temple, who had been working on designing an engine small and powerful enough to power a plane made the first powered ‘hop’,  in his ‘Monoplane’ taking off under its own power and returning safely to the ground after a short flight.  This hop has rarely been given the credit it deserves and should be considered the first powered flight although the engine was not powerful enough to allow for a sustained flight over any distance.

By 1890 another Frenchman, Ader, designed a steam propelled aircraft, the Eole, which flew 50m about 8 inches off the ground.  This was the first example of a manned aircraft taking off under its own power although the flight was uncontrolled.  Ader claimed to have had further successful flights with another prototype, the Avion III, but this claim was later shown to be false.

  1. Towards the end of the 19th Century Several Pioneers had Designed Functional Gliders 
Gliders were all the rage
Gliders were all the rage

Following on from the work of Cayley, Du Temple and Ader many inventors concentrated on refining the practical application of aerodynamics to wing design to build functional gliders and in the 1890s Lilienthal, a German aviator, patented a functional hang glider – travelling up to 250m resulting in his being nick-named the ‘Glider King’. Lilienthal was a prodigious inventor and was also credited with working on a small, safe engine and patenting the ‘slat’ a type of flap used to adjust the surface of an airplane’s wing. The Wright Brother’s later made use of Lillienthal’s data when starting on their journey to Kitty Hawk.

Australian pioneer Lawrence Hargrave was well known for his experiments with engine design  and invented the radial engine (similar to that used in most early aircraft up to the 1920s) although the materials available to him at the time were not sufficiently sophisticated to allow his engine to work efficiently.  He then turned to experiments with Box Kites and in 1894 flew 16 feet after linking four of his kites together to provide the required amount of lift.

Hargrave refused to patent any of his work and as such it proved a direct inspiration to many later developers.  The design of his kites including the double wing with a curved surface and a thick leading edge were crucial developments in early aircraft design and many of the early bi-planes were direct technical descendants of Hargrave’s work.   While the Wright Brothers denied that his work had influenced theirs in any way, the intellectual debt to Hargreve was freely acknowledged by many of the French pioneers of the 1900’s.  Hargreave’s box kites were also a direct inspiration for the work of Samuel Franklin Cody – an American/British aviation pioneer who developed the concept of the box kite for the British military.  By 1905 Cody had adapted the box kite into a tailless biplane, by 1907 he had developed a powered drone kite and in 1908 flew the first powered, manned flight in Britain.

  1. There are Claims That The Aerodrome and No. 21 Monoplane flew before the Wright Brothers Took Off
Allegedly The Aerodrome and No. 21 Monoplane flew before the Wright Brothers Took Off
Allegedly The Aerodrome and No. 21 Monoplane flew before the Wright Brothers Took Off

Samul Langley was an American aviation pioneer and contemporary of the Wright Brothers.  Working with scale models Aerodrome 5 and 6 in the 1890s Langley had significant success, flying almost a mile – further than any other heavier than air aircraft had managed up to that point.  Langley was funded in his research by the American government and attempted to speak to the Wright Brothers, however, they preferred to work alone.  The full scale version was finished in 1903, it was extremely fragile and by this time the design was somewhat outmoded– it had no landing gear, minimal control and had to be launched by catapult.  The plane never flew successfully, Langley gave up after a crash in December 1903, just a few days before the Wright Brothers’ successful trial.

The Aerodrome gave rise to significant controversy when, in an attempt to fight the Wright Brother’s patent and following extensive modifications, the design was shown to fly in 1914.  The Smithsonian stated that the Aerodrome was the first aircraft capable of flight but they were considering the modified, not the original, version.  Feelings ran so high that the Wright Brothers’ Flyer was originally denied to the Smithsonian and put on display in a London Museum, it was only returned to the United States when the Smithsonian issued an unreserved apology.

Around the same time Gustave Whitehead a German immigrant to the US developed his No. 21 Monoplane in which claimed to have made a powered, controlled flight in 1901.  This flight was reported in local papers and several people claim to have witnessed the event.  Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft accepts that this flight was the first manned, powered and controlled flight of an aircraft that was heavier than air. There is, at present, a heated debate over whether Whitehead’s flight occurred as reported.

It appears that when, in 1948, the Smithsonian issued their apology to the Wright Brothers’ estate, in order to obtain the original Wright Flyer, they entered into an agreement to recognize the Flyer as the first aircraft to achieve the goal of manned, powered and controlled flight.

  1. The Most Widely Acknowledged Candidate for First Controlled, Manned and Powered Flight was the Wright Brothers’ Flyer at Kitty Hawk in 1903
The Smart and Final Money is the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk
The Smart and Final Money is the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk

Having worked in a number of Gliders from 1900 onwards the Wright Brothers were interested in solving the dual problems of power and control of an aircraft.  They realised the importance of stability in any manned aircraft and combined a movable wing surface (they warped the entire wing rather than use ailerons) with a tail mounted rudder.  Their Flyer was, therefore, extremely stable and could be flown in a wind.  The first flight took place on December 17 1903, the Flyer only managed 120m and lasted 12 seconds but were photographed and in the process changed the world.

The Wright Brothers’ use of wing warping was significant.  They filed a patent application for the control systems – specifically mentioning wing warping in combination with the use of a rudder for turning but alluding to the fact that other methods could be used.  Curtiss was developing aircraft controlled by ailerons and was told by the Wright Brothers that they considered this a breach of their patent.  Curtiss, supported by Alexander Graham Bell and the Smithsonian modified Langley’s Aerodrome in an attempt to defeat the patent and extended litigation followed as did the Smithsonian/Langley controversy which was only resolved in 1948.

In recent years it has become fashionable to re-ignite the debate on who can be considered to have completed the first successful manned, controlled and powered flight.  While the Smithsonian originally gave this accolade to Langley they have, since 1948 acknowledged the Wright Brothers as the first to be successful in this arena.  Whether or not that is the case or whether Whitehead deserves that accolade we will, perhaps, never know.

However many pioneers had successes long before Whitehead, Langley or the Wright Brothers.  The contributions of Cayley are well known but the impact of the work of Du Temple and Adler are often overlooked as are the developments in aeronautics made as a result of the experiments of Lilienthal, Hargreve and others.  Indeed many of these early pioneers showed a sophisticated understanding of the problems of manned flight but were limited by the technology available to them.

We should perhaps look on all these pioneers as part of a continuum.  They inspired each other and others with their work and research, each step leading to the increasingly long, controlled hops of the early 1900s all of them leading, inexorably to the Apollo 11 landings on the moon less than 100 years after du Temple’s powered attempt.