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A photograph of a aeroplane flying into the sunset

A brief history of flying

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The story of humanity’s ascent to the heavens is an epic story of artists, visionaries, pioneers… and lots of people in black-and-white stock footage running around flapping giant fake wings attached to their arms. Yes, there were quite a few foolish false starts and slapstick experiments in the pursuit of flight, but we got there in the end. And, having made the dreams of our ancient ancestors come true, we’re now on the cusp of an even more incredible era in flight.

Early dreams and innovations

The dream of flight has been with civilisation from the start. Think of Icarus, the figure from Greek mythology who had wings crafted from feathers and wax by his father Daedalus.

Icarus, of course, ended up ignoring his dad’s warnings and flew too close to the sun, its rays melted his delicate wings and sent him hurtling back to Earth with a bump. The story is an enduring warning against the perils of hubris, recklessness and not heeding good advice. But it can also be interpreted in a more poignant way, as a celebration of human ingenuity and the possibility of conquering nature by taking to the skies.

In China, kites capable of lifting people off the ground became an early form of flying technology. This, however, was a less-than-glorious milestone, being put to sadistic use by the 6th Century Emperor Wenxuan. It’s said that he would punish criminals and political enemies by having giant bamboo mats harnessed to their bodies and throwing them off towers, enjoying the spectacle of the men floating and eventually crashing.

Winging it

Many of the early attempts at flight were a bit too obsessed with directly emulating birds. A striking example was the case of Abbas ibn Firnas, a scientist, musician, poet and all-round genius in 9th Century Andalusia. According to a famous historical account, Firnas literally swathed his body with feathers, strapped on some wings made from bamboo and silk, and threw himself off a hill. It’s said he actually managed to fly some distance before landing, in a way reminiscent of modern-day hang-gliding.

A like-minded soul working centuries later was John Damian. This Italian chap in the court of Scotland’s James IV also tried attaching some makeshift wings and leaping off a high point (in his case, Stirling Castle). He promptly plummeted and broke his leg, allegedly blaming the mishap on the fact he’d used chicken feathers on his wings rather than those from an eagle.

Meanwhile, one of the better-known dreamers of flight was Leonardo da Vinci, whose intricate sketches of flying machines have gone down in engineering lore. While none of them made it off the drawing board, the designs – which included a kind of helicopter and a hang-glider – still fascinate us today as a window into his trailblazing imagination.

In September 1783, they conducted a flamboyant experiment by loading a hot air balloon with living creatures for the first-ever time

The Balloon Age

Long before the Wright brothers came along, another pair of pioneering siblings helped drag the world into the age of flight. They were Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, paper manufacturers in France who became obsessed with the possibilities of hot air balloons as a means of human ascent.

In September 1783, they conducted a flamboyant experiment by loading a hot air balloon with living creatures for the first-ever time. There was a duck to act as a control because as a flying animal it was already known to be impervious to the potential ill-effects of going to a high altitude. There was a chicken, to see if there would indeed be any ill-effects on a bird that didn’t fly to high altitudes. And there was a sheep, which was basically a human stand-in.

Performed in front of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the flight was a success and the animals landed unharmed. And so, the first free and untethered human flight in a balloon took place in November of that year, carrying scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and aristocrat François d’Arlandes. A few years later, de Rozier – a daredevil who once tested the flammability of hydrogen by taking some in his mouth and blowing it over a flame – became one of the first victims of an aviation disaster when his balloon fatally crashed during an attempt to cross the English Channel.

Plane amazing

Hot air balloons would eventually pave the way for airships – the immense, rigid, lighter-than-air creations that heralded the dawn of commercial air travel. However, disasters like the one that befell the Hindenburg – which exploded while trying to land in 1937 – ensured that 'Zeppelins' were destined to be a mere footnote to the technology that would really change the world: the aeroplane.

One of the great pioneers behind the plane is a man whose name has been oddly forgotten: Sir George Cayley, an English engineer who devised the basic principles of plane flight in the early 19th Century. He drew up the concepts of lift and thrust as two separate aspects of flight and came up with the classic aircraft design of a fuselage with fixed wings. In 1853, his glider carried coachman John Appleby over Brampton Dale, making Appleby a rather reluctant aviation trailblazer (his first words on landing were, 'Sir George I wish to give notice. I was hired to drive, not to fly').

Of course, it’s the Wright brothers who are synonymous with the birth of the aeroplane. Orville and Wilbur, who began their careers as bicycle repairmen before getting interested in aviation, built the first powered heavier-than-air plane to achieve sustained flight with a pilot on board. This was the Wright Flyer, which took off on 17 December 1903 in North Carolina and changed the course of both travel and warfare (the first air raid in history would take place in 1911, during the Italo-Turkish War, when an Italian pilot called Giulio Gavotti tossed out hand grenades from his monoplane).