Wright Brothers – History of Flight

Articles relating to the history of the first flight.

Many scientific people around the world, including the US Government, doubted the Wrights’ claim that they flew an airplane.

The prestigious Scientific American published an editorial in 1906 questioning the validity of the 1903-1905 flights.

Wilbur and Orville, fighting for proper recognition sent a letter outlining their experiments to the Aero Club of America on March 12, 1906. Their letter was the first public announcement in the United States that they had flown distances up to 24 miles.

The club in turn passed a resolution congratulating the Wrights for successfully developing a practical man-carrying flying machine.

As a result, The editor of the Scientific American decided to take another look at the Wrights claim to success by sending questionnaires to the alleged witnesses to the flights in Dayton.

The questionnaires were sent to 17 witnesses and eleven of them filled out the questionnaires and returned them. The positive response convinced the editor that the Wrights did do what they claimed.

The April 7, 1906 issue of the Scientific American withdrew their original story and included the Wrights’ letter to the Aero Club. The article included a letter from Charles Webbert, the Wrights bicycle shop landlord, who was a creditable eyewitness to a number of Wright flights at Huffman Prairie.

The David Beard family lived closest to the Huffman Prairie flying field and observed most of the activities that were going on. Whenever Mrs. Beard observed a hard landing of the flying machine, she would send one of her children over to the prairie with a bottle of liniment.

Other neighbors observing the activities in 1904 were the Harshmans, Millers, and Amos Stouffer, all of which had visited and talked with Wilbur and Orville.

Amos Root of Medina, Ohio, stayed with the Beards and observed Wilbur make the first complete circle in an airplane on September 20 1904. Root accurately described the flight in his publication, Gleanings in Bee Culture.

On November 9, Mr. Brown and Mr. Read, two supervisors with the interurban railroad, ordered their crew of the inspection train to hold up at Simms station so that they could watch Wilbur fly four complete circles of the field.

Webbert and C.S. Billman and his son, Charley, witnessed the October 4, 1905 flight in which Wilbur flew for 33 minutes without stopping. Billman was a West Dayton neighbor and the Secretary of the West Side Building and Loan Company.

Charley, 3 years old, ran around the house for weeks afterward with arms outstretched making a sound like an airplane. One skeptic who visited the home after observing Charley remarked, “I’m about convinced. That boy could not be a paid witness.”

Wilbur flew his longest flight the next day, October 5th. He flew 29 circles for a distance of 24 1/5-miles.

Amos Stauffer, a tenant farmer on the Huffman property who was cutting corn at the time said to a helper, “the boys are at it again.” He walked down to the fence to watch commenting, “I thought the flight would never end.”

Also on that day, William Huffman accompanied his father, Torrence, out to the flying field on the interurban train. Torrence owned Huffman Prairie and permitted the Wrights to use the land free of charge as long as they moved the cows and horses out of the way.

William Huffman and David Beard’s son sat on a farm wagon and made a mark on the wagon floor after each circle of the prairie.

The next day the Dayton Daily News reported that the Wrights were making spectacular flights. John Tomlinson of the paper, offered $50 to Henry Webbert to keep him informed when the Wrights would be flying.

The Wrights now had the practical airplane they were working for and so they began decreasing the number of times they flew as the increasing crowd of spectators made them nervous that they might compromise their secrets of flight.

Then they decided to stop altogether until they had a contract in hand. Their last flight was on October 16, 1905. They would not fly again for the next 31 months. This made marketing their airplane more difficult, but it was a price that they chose to pay to protect what they had invented.

The word of their success was beginning to spread. In Paris, Frank Lahm, a representative for Remington Typewriter Co. and a native of Ohio, was interested in aeronautics and wanted to know more about the Wrights’ activities. He asked a relative of his in Ohio to investigate.

Henry Weaver visited the Wrights in Dayton on Dec. 3rd. Orville took him to Huffman Prairie and visited with David Beard and Amos Stouffer. They also met with William Fouts, who operated a drugstore near the Wrights bicycle shop and who had witnessed Wilbur’s record breaking flight on Oct 5th at Huffman Prairie.

That evening Weaver met the rest of the Wright family at their home.

Weaver was convinced that the Wrights had flown even though he had not winnessed a flight and sent a favorable report to Lahm.

A steady stream of visitors followed Weaver.

The French Government sent a commission to Dayton. They interviewed witnesses, examined photographs and were convinced of the Wrights’ claims, but nothing more came of it.

The British sent their military attaché in Washington, LtCol. A. E. Count to Dayton. He left impressed, but nothing came of it because the British thought the price was too high.

Finally, contracts were signed on two continents at almost the same time. The US War Department contract was awarded on Feb. 8, 1908.

Three weeks later a contract was signed with Lazare Walker of France.

Wilbur wowed the French and captured the imagination of the world at Les Hunaudieres on August 8th. Orville flew at Ft. Myer, Va. on September 3rd.

Reference: What Dreams We Have: The Wright Brothers and Their Hometown of Dayton Ohio by Ann Honious.

The French Competition

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

The French considered themselves the world leaders in flying. The Montgolfier brothers were the first to fly in a balloon filled with hot air in 1783. The French followed that up a hundred years later with the first successful dirigible. They even claimed six years later to be the first to fly a manned, heavier-than-air machine.

Their high-flying balloon of superiority was punctured and their national pride wounded when they learned of the Wright Brothers success in 1903.

Even their claim of being the first to fly a manned, heavier-than-air machine was an exaggeration. In actuality, Clement Ader’s steam-powered, bat-wing shaped machine made an uncontrolled hop in 1890. He tried again in 1897 with an improved machine, but it never got off the ground.

Frustrated, most French experimenters lost interest in flying machines and concentrated their efforts on balloons and dirigibles. There was one Frenchman, however, who maintained an avid interest in flying machines. He was Captain Ferdinand Ferber.

Ferber followed with interest the glider experiments of Octave Chanute, American French born internationally known aeronautical experimenter. From Chanute, Ferber learned of the activities of the Wrights in 1901. Subsequently, he began a correspondence directly with Wilbur Wright.

Ferber tried unsuccessfully to build some gliders based on what he had learned, but they performed poorly.

Ferber was not one who was easily discouraged and he continued to advocate through lectures and articles that the French should direct more attention to heavier-than-air flying machines.

Ernest Archdeacon, a wealthy attorney and a founder of the Aero Club of France heard the message. He added his influence to publicize the urgent need for the French to develop a flying machine. “The airplane must not be allowed to reach successful development in America,” he emphatically stated.

In April 1903, Chanute, a friend of the Wrights and their guest at Kitty Hawk during the glider experiments in 1901 and 1902, was invited to give a lecture to the Aero Club of France. In his illustrated lecture, he provided a summary of the Wrights gliding experiments, including how they were able to execute controlled turns of their glider using wingwarping.

While not understanding all of the fine points of the lecture, the audience now knew that the Wrights were way ahead of them in the race to fly.

Ferber, who was present at the lecture, fired off an urgent letter to Archdeacon pleading for increased financial support for French experimentation.

It was too late, the word came in December 1903 that the Wrights were successful and had flown.

Archdeacon responded by commissioning the construction of a flying machine based on the information that Chanute had provided in his lecture and articles such as in the Aerophile that included drawings of the Wright gliders.

Further, as a incentive to others, he and a wealthy industrialist, Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe each contributed 25,000 francs ($5,000) to establish a prize to be awarded to the first powered flight around a course of one kilometer (.62 miles) long.

Archdeacon was skeptical of whether the Wrights actually flew. A newspaper reporter for L’ Auto was dispatched to visit Dayton to find out. The Wrights wouldn’t show him their machine, however, based on his interview of witnesses, he reported that “it was impossible to doubt the success of their experiments.”

Archdeacon still refused to believe they had flown. He challenged the Wrights through the French press to come to France and try for the 50,000-franc award that he and Deutsch had established. “It will assuredly not tire you very much to make a brief visit to France to collect this little prize.”

The Wrights did not respond.

The French, including Archdeacon, Santos-Dumont, Delagrange, Voisins, Kapferer, Bleriot and Farman tried hard to develop a machine that would fly by trying versions of the Wright design instead of doing their own basic research.

The problem with their approach was that the Wrights revealed few of their secrets in their drawings. Chanute, although a close friend of the Wrights,’ didn’t understand the subtleties of the Wright design, particularly wingwarping, enough to explain them in his lectures to the French. The French couldn’t figure it out even after the printing of the Wright patent and the publication of numerous pictures of the Wright machines in the Scientific American in 1906.

Still, the French regarded the Wrights as “bluffeurs.” “Fliers or Liars,” said the headline of the Paris edition of the New York Herald on February 10, 1906.

It wasn’t until January 13, 1908, that the French managed to fly a heavier-than air-machine over a one-kilometer circuit. On that date Henry Farman won the Archdeacon 50,000 francs cup in a flight lasting one minute and 28 seconds. The flight was far from perfect. His turn at the halfway point was awkward and the machine wobbled as it performed the wide flat turn.

In contrast, the Wright brothers had flown 39 times that distance (24 miles) two years earlier at Huffman Prairie in Dayton, Ohio.

In June 1908, Wilbur finally made the trip to France after a group of French businessmen promised to manufacture the Wright machine contingent upon a successful demonstration in France.

The Wright machine was severely damaged during the French custom inspection, requiring Wilbur to spend seven weeks to rebuild the machine while in France. Finally on August 8, Wilbur was ready for a demonstration flight of his Wright Model A Flyer at the Hunaudieres racetrack near Le Mans.

Wilbur was dressed in his usual suit, a visor cap set backwards and starched collar. The engine started and quickly died when Wilbur’s back collar stud caught on the control wires.

Soon after, the weight dropped from the launching derrick, propelling the machine into the air.

French aviation reporter, Francois Peyrey, describes what happened: “We beheld the great white bird soar above the racecourse and pass over and beyond the trees. We were able to follow easily each movement of the pilot, note his extraordinary proficiency in the flying business, perceive the curious warping of the wings in the process of circling and the shifting and position of the rudders. After one minute and 45 seconds of flight, Wright returned to the ground, descending with extraordinary buoyancy and precision.”

The crowd cheered loudly. “Well, we are beaten!” exclaimed one spectator. Another said, “We are as children compared with the Wrights.”

Wilbur wrote Orville on August 15, “In the second flight, I made an “eight” and landed at the starting point. The newspapers and the French aviators went wild with excitement. Blenot and Delagrange were so excited they could scarcely speak, and Kapferer could only gasp and could not talk at all. You would have almost died of laughter if you could have seen them.”

Wilbur, between August 1908 and January 1909, made more than a 100 demonstration flights in France and took up 60 passengers, astounding spectators and bringing on instant fame.

The Turkey Buzzard

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

Many people associate the name of Gatling with the famous Gatling Machine Gun, but few associate the name with a flying machine. However in 1873 another Gatling flew a heavy-than-air machine on the family farm near Murfreesboro, North Carolina.

James Henry Gatling, the older brother of Richard of Gatling Gun fame, took flight on a Sunday afternoon and according to witnesses’ flew up to 100 feet before crashing into a tree. Some of the amazed witnesses dubbed the machine, “The Turkey Buzzard,” a vulture that resembles a common turkey.

The machine was 18 feet long and had a wingspan of 14 feet. It had features that are prescient of the Wright Brothers machine.

It had a vertical elevator in front for vertical control and a tail in the rear for yawl control. Both were connected to a lever in the cockpit. A built-in wooden chair was provided for the pilot in a cockpit within a fuselage made of a light popular wood.

The monoplane wings were made of 1/8-inch thick woven white-oak splits in a triangular shape. They were hinged to the fuselage and could be adjusted up and down while flying by a lever connected to wires attached to the wing tips.

Twin blowers propelled the machine, one under each wing. Air was drawn into the curved blower casings containing paddle wheels and blown out under each wing to provide lift. The pilot used muscle power to turn the fans by cranking a hand wheel in the cockpit.

The machine had a tricycle landing gear. The wheels were cut from logs. The solid front wheels were 2 1/2-feet in diameter and the solid rear wheel was 18-inches in diameter.

Henry had many of the same interests and characteristics of the Wright Brothers. As a youth, he was interested in mechanical things and enjoyed taking them apart and putting them back together again to find out they worked. He made and flew kites and wooden model airplanes and dreamed of flying while observing buzzards.

At the age of 57, he decided to realize his long held dream by designing and constructing his flying machine. His plan was to take off from a 12-foot high platform protruding from his cotton gin, fly east to a point some 400 yards from his farm near Como, NC, and fly back.

On a Sunday afternoon he had 6 bystanders push the machine off the platform while he cranked the blowers as fast as he could. The machine reportedly flew over a 4-foot fence, turned to the left and hit an elm tree with a wing. The force spun the machine around and it crashed, with Henry escaping somewhat dazed, but with only minor injuries.

The original machine was destroyed in a fire. Now, some 20 hard working volunteers have invested 1700 man-hours in building a full-size replica of the machine. The accompanying picture shows some of them as well as yours truly.

The machine is located in the historic district of Murfreesboro in a temporary site. They plan to build a permanent residence once they raise the money.

They hope to attract visitors on their way to Kitty Hawk to stop in and see the Turkey Buzzard. While there they can see magnificent historical homes, some of them dating back to the 18th century, and visit their impressive museums.

Did the Turkey Buzzard really fly? That depends on whom you talk to. Some say that it rapidly descended to the ground, others say it flew as far as 100 feet. One witness said it flew very well but had difficulty landing.

Henry himself realized that muscle power alone was insufficient to generate the lift to overcome the weight of his machine. He was examining the possible use of an electric motor at the time of his death.

He asked his younger brother, Richard, for his ideas, but unlike the Wright Brothers, apparently Richard didn’t think much of his brother’s attempt to fly and was of little help.

Another problem was that Henry’s idea of blowing air on the underside of the wings was not aerodynamically sound. He apparently was unaware of the Bernoulli principle whereby lift is created by the pressure differential of airflow over the wings.

Also, the machine was unstable and uncontrollable. The problem of control was not solved until the Wright Brothers developed their system for dealing with pitch, roll and yaw that made flight possible.

However, Henry’s use of a vertical tail was innovative in that most gliders at the time did not use this feature. Also, his insight in the employment of a front elevator, fuselage, monoplane wings with twin engines, tricycle landing gear and the ability to change the shape of the wings in flight were innovative for his time.

Henry met an untimely end on September 2, 1879. He was shot in the head over a minor dispute by a neighbor with a shotgun. Henry never flew more than the one time.

The Turkey Buzzard is an historic machine worth noting in the long history of man’s attempt to fly.

“Darius was clearly of the opinion,
That the air is also man’s dominion,
And that, with paddle of fin or pinion,
We soon or late
Shall navigate
The azure as now we sail the sea.”

“Darius Green and his Flying Machine” by John T. Trowbridge, (1870).

The Turkey Buzzard may not have flown in the 1800s, but it has now become a modern tourist attraction. Four volunteers drive a trailer containing the machine to sites such as regional airports. The machine stays on the trailer during display. One of the volunteers turn the pedals to show how it was supposed to work.

The charge is a dollar per mile between Murfreeboro and the place of destination with a minimum charge of $200. There is no charge for the display.

References: First to Fly, North Carolina and The Beginning of Aviation, Thomas C. Parramore. “The Roanoke-Chowan Story,” F. Roy Johnson. Editorial, “A Useful Invention,” Goldsboro News-Argus, Mike Rouse.

“The desire to fly,” wrote Wilbur Wright, “is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.”

Daedalus and Icarus

One of the earliest tales of flying comes from the Greek myth that tells of Daedalus and his son, Icarus. They sought to escape imprisonment by King Minos on the island of Crete by flying from captivity using wings made of feathers held together by wax. Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, but he ignored his father’s warning and the wax in his wings melted and he plunged into the sea and drowned.

Leonardo da Vinci

Early attempts to fly were made by trying to mimic the birds by flapping wings. Human arms are too weak to flap wings for long so machines were designed to aid arms or legs to perform flapping. Such machines are known as “ornithopters.”

Some of the earliest ornithopter designs were made by Leonardo da Vinci from the early 1480s until almost his death in 1519. Leonardo sketched many different designs in his notebooks based on his scientific studies on the mechanism by which a bird flies. As far as is known, he never built any of his machines. It is just as well because his designs lacked in aerodynamic qualities.

Although he was not successful in designing a successful flying machine, his heritage for those to follow was in his approach of using the scientific method. The inscription, “There Shall Be Wings” on the Wright Memorial at Kitty Hawk, N.C. is a quotation from da Vinci.

Sir George Cayley

Cayley, a baronet and engineer who lived on an estate in Yorkshire, England, was the first to advance the concept of the modern airplane. “The whole problem,” Cayley wrote, “is confined within these limits – to make a surface support a given weight by application of power to the resistance of air.”

He published three articles during 1809-10 on his aeronautical research entitled “Aerial Navigation” in which he correctly concluded that (1) lift is generated by a region of low pressure on the upper surface of the wing and (2) cambered wings generate lift more efficiently than a flat surface.

He used his findings to design a model glider in 1804 with an up-angled front fixed wing and a stabilizing tail.

A serious deficiency of his design was the use of “flappers” as the means of propulsion. This feature was useless.

In 1853, at the age of 80, he built a full-size glider that carried his reluctant coachman in a flight across a small valley.

William Henson

Henson, a contemporary of Cayley tried to use Cayley’s ideas to design a practical airplane propelled by a steam engine. It was known as the “Aerial Steam Carriage” and he received a patent for it in 1842. His design was the first to provide for the use of airscrews to power a fixed-wing monoplane. His structural design and bracing system anticipated modern design.

His design employed a separate tail and elevator and cambered wings with a 20-foot wing span. He added two vertical fan wheels back of the fixed wings that were powered by a lightweight steam engine to propel the machine through the air. A small model was built of the machine and tested without success.

John Stringfellow

Stringfellow, another contemporary, built an improved model in 1848. He launched it by running it down a sloping wire for 33 feet and then released it with the engine running. Allegedly, the model demonstrated true powered flight by climbing a little before it hit a wall.

The steam engine was simply too heavy for the power it produced. Powered flight would have to wait until the invention of a compact gas engine. The Smithsonian has in its possession a Stringfellow small one-horsepower steam engine.

Alphonse Penaud

Penaud, a Frenchman, was the first to use twisted rubber bands as motive power in a model helicopter. The helicopter would rise easily to the ceiling when operated and became a popular toy for children, including the Wright Brothers.

In 1876, he patented an airplane design that was remarkably similar to modern aircraft. The design included a “joy-stick” for the purpose of controlling horizontal and vertical rudders, a feature that anticipated the control system used by the Wright Brothers. Failing to obtain the financing to build his aircraft, he became depressed and committed suicide at the young age of 30.

Francis Wenham

Wenham, another Englishman, designed, built and used the first wind tunnel in 1871. His tunnel consisted of a long wooden box with a steam-driven fan at one end.

His studies demonstrated that a cambered wing was more effective for lift than a flat wing and that a wing’s leading edge provided most of the lift. As a result, a long narrow wing would create more lift than a short stubby one.

He further advocated the use of several wings on top of each other and obtained the first patent on a flying machine that used superposed planes. From his work he became known as the “father of the biplane,” a design used by the Wrights.

Horatio Phillips

Phillips was the second Englishman to build and use a crude wind tunnel to explore the curvature of wing airfoil shapes. He used steam to observe the movement of air along various surfaces. He wrote, “The particles of air struck by the convex upper surface…are deflected upward…thereby causing a partial vacuum over the greater portion of the upper surface.”

In 1892, Phillips designed a machine with 50 wing slats called a “multiplane.” It looked like a flying Venetian blind. It managed to fly for a short hop, but didn’t impress anyone.

He received a number of patents on his wing shapes in 1884 and 1891.

Otto Lilienthal

Lilienthal designed and flew the first successful gliders in history. They resembled today’s hang gliders.

He started his flying experiments about 1867 as a young boy in Germany. With the help of his brother, Gustav, he built a series of small gliders and successfully flew controlled flights with them.

In his home he built a whirling arm device that he used to collect the amount of pressure on a wing that would be obtained at various angles of incidence. In 1889 he published a classic in aeronautical literature, “Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation.” The Wright Brothers used data from the book in designing their 1900 and 1901 gliders.

Subsequently, the Wrights found inaccuracies in the data and based their successful 1902 glider and the 1903 Wright Flyer on data they derived from their own wind tunnel experiments

During the period 1891-1896, Lilienthal made over 2,500 successful glider flights. He would support himself on his forearms and control the glider by swinging his legs to shift its center of gravity. He believed that success in gliding was a necessary prerequisite before considering adding an engine for powered flight. The Wright Brothers took this advice to heart.

While gliding on August 9, 1896, Lilienthal was hit by a sudden gust of wind that tossed his glider upward to an altitude of 50 feet at an acute angle. Lilienthal immediately threw his weight forward and tried to bring the nose down. It was too late. The glider stalled, its left wing dipped sharply and plunged to the ground. He died the next day of a broken spine at the age of 48.

The incident was read with interest by the Wright Brothers and is credited with awaking their interest in the solving the riddle of successful flight by man. Wilbur called Lilienthal “the greatest of the precursors.”

Octave Chanute

Chanute, a well to do businessman, civil engineer and railroad bridge builder, was well beyond middle age when he became interested in aviation. He conducted flights with multi-wing gliders on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1896 searching for a design that would provide automatic stability. The experiments convinced him that it was possible to develop an inherently stable airplane.

He carried on correspondence with airplane experimenters all over the world and was soon regarded as an expert on the history of aviation. In 1894 he published, “Progress in Flying Machines.” It was considered the reference book for anyone interested in flight.

The Wright Brothers became aware of the book after Wilbur’s inquiry to the Smithsonian in May 1899. Wilbur wrote, “I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style of Cayley’s and Penaud’s machines.” Wilbur continued, “I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success.”

Wilbur wrote Chanute on May 13, 1900 to introduce himself saying, “For some years I have been inflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.” It was the beginning of a ten-year close relationship between Chanute and Wilbur. Chanute was forty-five years older than Wilbur was, but the age difference was not apparent in the several hundred letters between the two. Chanute also visited the Wrights at their home in Dayton and at Kitty Hawk during their glider experiments.

Wright Brothers

After the Wrights completed their review of the literature, they were struck by the realization that there was really little known about the subject of flying. Orville wrote, “So many attempts to solve the flying problems started with the same idea and stopped at the same point. Most of them resulted in little or no advance over what had been done before.  To my mind Sir George Cayley was the first of the important pioneers. Leonardo da Vinci was a wonderful genius, but I cannot think of anything he contributed to the art of human flight.”

Wilbur and Orville were particularly surprised to find that no one had successfully solved the basic problem of flight control. From the beginning of their research, the Wrights knew they had to control rolling and not just pitching as their contemporaries had emphasized.

Orville wrote, “When we went to Kitty Hawk in 1900 we thought the fore-and-aft balance the difficult problem of equilibrium. We got this idea from reading Lilienthal, Chanute, and others. They gave very little space in their writings to lateral equilibrium.”

Many of the aviation pioneers had been injured and even died because of control problems. The Wrights did not think that controlling flight by body movements or a self-stabilizing design was going to lead to a solution.

Wilbur, while watching buzzards fly along the banks of the Miami River in Dayton, noticed that the birds regained their lateral balance by a slight twisting of their wing tips. That idea lead to the Wrights’ concept of wing-warping (twisting the wings).

They experimented with the idea using Chanute-type gliders at Kitty Hawk and found hat the idea worked.

The twisting of the wings along with the coordinated movement of the tail solved the control problem of flight and enabled the Wright Brothers to fly the first successful powered, heavier than air, manned, airplane.

The Wrights acknowledged those who went before them, but they owed them little, for their success came from their own painstaking work. It was they who had tested each idea derived from their own scientific imagination and invented the means to test. They replaced the trial and error approach of their predecessors with the scientific method and in so doing founded the profession of modern aeronautical engineering.

Earlier experimenters had failed because their machines were not aeronautically sound, but they did keep the dream of man’s quest to fly alive. It took the genius of the Wright Brothers to fulfill that dream.

Da Vinci’s Aerodynamics

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most creative genius of the Renaissance, had an enduring infatuation with flying during the period between 1488 to 1514, a time when Columbus discovered America. His obsession drove him to write a collection of manuscripts with over 500 sketches on the topic. Many of his ideas were a precursor of the modern airplane.

His most famous flying machine designs were ornithopters, or machines that were to be powered by man by flapping bat-like wings like a bird.

In one of his best known designs, a man lies face down on the body of the machine and flaps the wings by pumping the stirrups with his legs much like modern pedal powered airplanes.

Just as the Wright Brothers, da Vinci based his ideas on the study of bird flight. He observed that: “A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law, an instrument which is within the capacity of man to reproduce with all its movements.”

Implicit in his statement is that da Vinci was searching for the governing laws upon which bird flight is made possible. Knowing these laws, he could then use them to design a machine.

He was the first person to understand the mechanics of bird flight. From his observations he came to realize that the up-and-down flapping of the bird’s wings did not contribute much to lift. What the flapping did do was provide thrust for propulsion.

Da Vinci was the first to consider the scientific concept of lift, the force that enables a flying machine to fly.

His initial concept of lift was wrong. He thought that a high-pressure, high-density region of air was formed under a lifting surface that in turn exerted an upward force on that surface.

Later in life he changed his ideas on lift to the correct modern concept that lift is created primarily because the pressure over the top of a wing is less that the pressure on the bottom of the wing as air flows over it.

He invented the first barometer and anemometer to use in his studies.

Da Vinci also concluded correctly that a flying machine could have fixed wings and have a separate mechanism for propulsion, a thoroughly modern idea.

Additionally, He understood the phenomenon of drag, the resistance that a body incurs when moving through air. He postulated that both lift and drag were proportional to the surface area of the body and velocity of the wind over the body.

He was partially correct on the relationships. The velocity function is actually “velocity squared.”

He further understood that streamlining the shape of a body would reduce drag. In this regard he said that the streamlined shape of fish aids them in maneuvering in water.

His sketches of various flow patterns of airflow around a body represent the first qualitative understanding of experimental aerodynamics.

Da Vinci was the first to recognize that when studying the flow of air over a body, it didn’t make any difference whether the body was moving through still air or whether the air was moving over a stationary body as long as the relative velocity was the same in both cases. This insight provided the basis for the use of wind tunnels as a tool in the of study aerodynamics.

Safety of the pilot was a concern of da Vinci. He invented the first parachute using the model of a kite. The kite is an old technology, having been invented in China around 1000 BC.

It is obvious that da Vinci made significant contributions to the state of the art of aerodynamics. Unfortunately, after his death in 1519, his contributions were not available for use by others until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By that time it was too late to add to what others had discovered.

The problem was that he never published his work nor constructed or flew any of his machines. All of his ideas were in his notes and these were difficult to interpret because he wrote in a reverse mirror-like fashion. After his death the notes were dispersed and essentially became lost from view. Most people know of him for his famous paintings of the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.

Sir George Cayley did not rediscover da Vinci’s ideas on lift and drag and the concept of a fixed-wing airplane until three centuries later in 1809. Cayley did not have the benefit of da Vinci’s notes.

By the time the Wright Brothers began construction of their 1900 glider, they had researched the available aerodynamic data of the day. It is not known whether they had in their extensive library any information on da Vinci.

The work of their predecessors did not furnish the Wrights with many answers but it did help them focus on the problems to be solved.

The Wrights, using a wind tunnel they constructed, contributed to the advancement of engineering knowledge on calculating lift and drag and design of airfoils.

Their most revolutionary contribution was the concept of wing warping for lateral control of a flying machine. Wilbur’s inspiration for this idea came from watching birds; much as da Vinci had done centuries before.