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A Brief History of Aviation - The Beginnings
by Michael Russell

09/08 - This is part one of a two-part review of Aviation from its beginnings to the present day. It is a subjective look at a few of the highlights in the development of Aviation over the centuries.

The generally accepted definition of Aviation is the design, manufacture, use, or operation of aircraft - in which the term aircraft refers to any vehicle capable of flight. Aircraft can either be heavier-than-air or lighter-than-air, lighter-than-air craft including balloons and airships; and heavier-than-air craft including airplanes, autogiros, gliders, helicopters and ornithopters.

It was the dream of man for centuries to soar with the birds. Famous inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci, John Stringfellow and Lawrence Hargrave had conjured up ideas of how to get some of the strangest machines to fly long before the Wright brothers' famous first flight at Kitty Hawk.

The kite was the first form of an aircraft believed to have been first designed in the 5th century BC. Roger Bacon, an English monk, performed studies later on in the 13th century which gave him the idea that air could support a craft just like water supports boats. In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci studied birds flight and later produced the airscrew and the parachute. The airscrew, leading to the propeller later on and the parachute were tremendously important contributions to aviation. He envisioned three different types of heavier-than-air craft; the helicopter, glider and ornithopter (a machine with mechanical wings which flap to mimic a bird). Although Leonardo's designs were impractical, seeing they required human muscular power which was insufficient to generate flight with the aircraft he envisioned, he was vital to aviation because he was the first to make scientific suggestions.

Some of the more credible developments in actual flight and stability occurred in the 19th century. Sir George Cayley of Britain designed a combined helicopter and horizontally propelled aircraft and the British Francis Herbert Wenham used wind tunnels in his studies. He also predicted the application of multiple wings placed above each other. Another famous inventor was John Stringfellow, who designed a steam engine powered aircraft which was launched from a wire. This model demonstrated lift but failed to actually climb. Lawrence Hargrave, a British-born Australian inventor, created a rigid-wing aircraft with flapping blades operated by a compressed-air motor, it flew 312 ft (95m) in 1891.

Jean Marie Le Bris of France was a famous glider developer in the 19th century who tested a glider with movable wings. Kites also played an important role in the development of aviation, they could be used to test aerodynamics and flight stability. Lawrence Hargrave first created the box kite in 1893 and Alexander Graham Bell developed a gigantic passenger-carrying tetrahedral-celled kite from 1895 to 1910. Some of the most important full-scale model flight attempts were made by Samuel Langley, who created the first heavier-than-air, gasoline-powered engine which actually flew. The 'aerodrome', which he called it, was powered by a 53 horsepower 5-cylinder radial engine and later crashed into the Potomac river on December 1903 -- days before the Wright's historic flight.

Throughout this century, major developments would give inventors a sound basis in experimental aerodynamics, although stability and control required for sustained flight had not been acquired. Most importantly, inventors noticed that successful powered flight required light gasoline engines instead of the cumbersome steam engines previously used. Fortunately the development of the gasoline engine was being pushed by the burgeoning auto industry. Although in its infancy, designers and inventors were looking for lighter engines capable of increased horsepower to power their automobiles.

It is remarkable, from 1903 to today, how far aviation has come. On December 17, 1903, at 10:35 a.m., the Wright brothers' (Orville at the controls) made the first heavier-than-air, machine powered flight which lasted 12 seconds and spanned 120 feet. Their first flight was 102 feet short of the wingspan of the C-5 Galaxy today, yet they did what every man and woman had dreamed of for centuries. . . they flew. Yet, not all flights were victorious, on September 17, their aircraft crashed, injuring Orville and his passenger (Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge). Selfridge later died of a concussion and was the first person to be killed in a powered airplane. Yet the show went on and Wilbur went to France in August 1908 and on December 31, 1908, he completed a 2 hour 20 minute flight which demonstrated full control over his Flyer. The Flyer was purchased on August 2, 1909 and became the first successful military airplane. It remained in service for around two years and was retired to the Smithsonian Institution where it rests today.

Michael Russell

Your Independent guide to Aviation