November is Aviation History Month. Since earliest times, people watched birds soaring overhead and wished they could fly too. Three thousand years before the birth of Christ, artists in ancient Egypt painted pictures of men with wings. Ancient Greek myths tell about winged gods and flying chariots. Arabian legends speak of princes riding on magic flying carpets.
In the Middle Ages, “birdmen” strapped wings to their arms and leaped from high places, flapping as hard as they could. Most of them suffered death or injuries, but a few achieved partial success with their glides. Later inventors designed flying machines called ornithopters (bird wings), which had wings that could be made to flap. However, no one was able to make one that could successfully carry a person.
The first truly scientific study of flight was made in the late 1400’s by the Italian artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo realized that human arm and chest muscles were not strong enough to operate a pair of wings. But he made detailed drawings of ornithopters, helicopters, and parachutes. The notes and sketches that he left show that Leonardo had a good understanding of the principles of aerodynamics. But historians are not sure whether he ever built and tested his inventions, and his works had little or no influence on the history of flight.
The glider, pioneered by Otto Lilienthal of Germany in the 1880’s, was the first successful heavier-than-air craft. Although it could not really fly, it could coast on air for many miles. The wonderful sensation of flying on currents of air has made gliding a popular sport. Other inventors tried adding propellers and engines to gliders, but were unsuccessful at getting off the ground. Finally, it was the Wright brothers who came up with a better aircraft design. (Read their biography at FamousHomeschoolers.net.)
On the beautiful shores of the Outer Banks at Kill Devil Hill on the morning of December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first powered flight. At 10:35 am, the Wright brothers’ flyer lifted into the air for 12 seconds and covered a distance of 121 feet. For the first time, a manned machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward under control without losing speed, and landed on a point as high as that from which it started. Later that day, Wilbur Wright made a much longer flight of 852 feet in 59 seconds.
In the beginning, few people believed reports of the Kitty Hawk flight. Then Wilbur started giving flying demonstrations in Europe, and their achievements became known throughout the world. In 1908, he stayed in the air for 2 hours and 20 minutes on one flight. The brothers continued to improve their airplane design and they built several more biplanes. At first, they made a good profit using airplanes for entertainment. When the U.S. Army purchased a Wright biplane in 1909, this marked the birth of military air power.
The Wright brothers formed their own company and began manufacturing airplanes in New York City. Before long, airplanes were being built in France, England, Germany, and Italy. Airplane makers continued to try new designs and build better models. Small companies that had been building planes slowly, by hand, began to speed up production. They hired engineers to develop airplanes that were safer and more practical.
Wilbur Wright died of typhoid in 1912. Orville Wright lived until 1948, long enough to see airplanes used in both World Wars. After World War I, the surplus war planes were disposed of at very low prices. Many former war pilots bought these planes for exhibition purposes. Daredevil pilots called barnstormers traveled all over the country performing stunts at county fairs. Some of the more brave members of their audience would pay for a private ride after the show.
The first airmail service was established between New York and Washington, D.C. in 1918. Coast-to-coast airmail service was offered starting in 1924. In the 1930’s, air transportation companies were formed to take passengers on short flights, and regular passenger service was established. Also in the 1930’s, the first practical helicopter was developed.
More rapid advancements took place in the aviation industry after World War II, beginning with the first jet-propelled airplanes. Commercial airlines were using jet planes by the late 1950’s. Like man’s dreams, the aviation industry went beyond the atmosphere into space. Space planes are being developed to fly as airplanes in the air and as spacecraft in space.
Aircraft and its related industries are some of the major employers in America. Thousands of companies are involved in aviation, which has been expanded to include aerospace. Ranging from the man who rents his small airplane for crop dusting to the giant Boeing company, and including many other companies that make parts for airplanes and spacecraft, they employ millions of people across the nation.
The site of the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, is now preserved as the Wright Brothers National Monument. The Wright brothers had big dreams, but the decisions leading up to their amazing accomplishment were based on sound research and careful planning – which, combined with imagination and dedication, is what helped to make their dreams a reality. For more information about the Wright brothers and flight, visit www.wright-brothers.org.
SEE ALSO: http://www.aviation-history.com (Aviation History Online Museum.)