A History of the Airplane

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  A History    
of the Airplane
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The Century    

The Decade    

   Pilots, Planes    
aNd Pioneers 

Who Was First? 


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he dream of flying is as old as mankind itself. However, the concept of the airplane has only been around for two centuries. Before that time, men and women tried to navigate the air by imitating the birds. They built wings to strap onto their arm or machines with flapping wings called ornithopters. On the surface, it seemed like a good plan. After all, there are plenty of birds in the air to show that the concept does work.

The trouble is, it works  better at bird-scale than it does at the much larger scale needed to lift both a man and a machine off the ground. So folks began to look for other ways to fly. Beginning in 1783, a few aeronauts made daring, uncontrolled flights in lighter-than-air balloons, filled with either hot air or hydrogen gas. But this was hardly a practical way to fly. There was no way to get from here to there unless the wind was blowing in the desired direction.

It wasn’t until the turn of the nineteenth century that an English baronet from the gloomy moors of Yorkshire conceived a flying machine with fixed wings, a propulsion system, and movable control surfaces. This was the fundamental concept of the airplane. Sir George Cayley also built the first true airplane — a kite mounted on a stick with a movable tail. It was crude, but it proved his idea worked, and from that first humble glider evolved the amazing  machines that have taken us to the edge of space at speeds faster than sound.

This wing of the museum focuses on the early history of the airplane, from its conception in 1799 to the years just before World War I. Because we are a museum of pioneer aviation, we don’t spend a great deal of time on those years after Orville Wright closed the doors of the Wright Company in 1916. We concentrate on the development of the airplane before it was commonplace, when flying machines were odd contraptions of stick, cloth, and wire; engines were temperamental and untrustworthy; and pilots were never quite sure whether they’d be able to coax their machine into the air or bring it down in one piece.

A History of the Airplane is divided into four sections:

1490 Leonardo DaVinci's plan for a man-carrying ornithopter with flapping wings.

1783 Montgolfier hot-air balloon.

1799 Sir George Cayley's plan for a fixed-wing aircraft.

The Century Before

In 1799, Sir George Cayley defined the forces of lift and drag and presented the first scientific design for a fixed-wing aircraft. Building on his pioneering work in aeronautics, scientists and engineers began designing and testing airplanes. A young boy made the first manned flight in a glider designed by Cayley in 1849. In 1874, Felix duTemple made the first attempt at powered flight by hopping off the end of a ramp in a steam-driven monoplane. Other scientists, such as Francis Wenham and Horatio Phillips studied cambered wing designs mounted in wind tunnels and on whirling arms. Finally in 1894, Sir Hiram Maxim made a successful takeoff (but a woefully uncontrolled flight) in a biplane "test rig." At the same time, Otto Lilienthal made the first controlled flights, shifting his body weight to steer a small glider. Inspired by his success, Wilbur and Orville Wright experiment with aerodynamic surfaces to control an airplane in flight. Their work leads them to make the first controlled, sustained, powered flights on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The Aerial Steam Carriage, conceived by William Henson in 1843, was the first aircraft design to show propellers.

In 1874, Felix du Temple made the first attempt at manned flight in a powered aircraft. He was not successful.

The Decade After

Immediately after the Wright Brothers make their first powered flights in 1903, they begin to develop their experimental aircraft into a marketable product. By 1905 they have what they consider to be a "practical flying machine." Other experimenters learn of their work and begin to build on their success. By 1906, would-be pilots are making tentative hops in uncontrollable aircraft. By 1909, after watching the Wrights' flying demonstrations, they grasp the brilliance and necessity of three-axis aerodynamic control. The performance of their aircraft quickly catch up to, then surpass Wright Flyers. The capabilities of and the uses for aircraft expand as designers and pilots introduce float planes, flying boats, passenger aircraft, observation platforms fitted with radios and wireless telegraphs, fighters, and bombers. As World War I  approaches, aircraft have become an essential part of war and peace.

The 1905 Wright Flyer III was the first practical aircraft, capable of sustained flight and navigation.

The Dunne flying wing, built and tested by the British in 1910, was the first top secret aircraft.

Pilots, Planes, and Pioneers

The history of pioneer aviation is resplendent with heroes and heroines who took spindly, underpowered aircraft and accomplished amazing things. They were an odd collection of scientists, entrepreneurs, adventurers, soldiers, and people who just wanted to push personal and cultural boundaries. What they all had in common is that they blazed the first trails through the sky and in doing so, changed the world. This is a collection of short biographies, arranged alphabetically. We have added longer bios for a few pioneers, and will add more as time allows.

In 1911, Harriet Quimby became the first licensed woman pilot in the United States.

Who Was First?

Almost as soon as the news of the Wright brothers' first flights at Kitty Hawk and Huffman Prairie became known, there were claims that others had been the first to fly. We shouldn't deny these "wannabees" the acclaim they deserve; they are true aviation pioneers and visionaries. It's interesting to note that with only a few exceptions, none claimed this honor for themselves. It was claimed for them, often many years after they had completed their work. And the people who made these claims often had transparent reasons -- reputations to uphold, axes to grind, books to sell, and tourism to encourage. The accounts presented here reflect the conclusions of the majority of aviation historians. We also address a favorite of conspiracy theorists, a controversial agreement between the Wright estate and the Smithsonian, allegedly designed to suppress whatever truth du jour needs suppressing.

Workmen who built the Ezekiel Airship for the Reverend Burrell Cannon claimed to have made a flight in 1902.

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