With over 100,000 flights per day, millions of people roam through the skies on a daily basis! However, we’ll bet that the vast majority knows very little about aviation and how it all began. Sure, most are familiar with the fact that the Wright brothers figured it out first when they built the first crewed airplane, but there is so much more to it.
The history of aviation goes back thousands of years and encompasses various myths, legends, goofy or tragic flight attempts, and iconic figures like Leonardo da Vinci!
From primitive winged contraptions to giant flying machines which have shown us the far reaches of space, the concept of soaring through the skies like the birds has always tickled the human imagination. And, the final product after thousands of years has opened up new possibilities in world travel, industries, education, commerce, and unfortunately, warfare and pollution. Nevertheless, the world of aviation is continuously developing, and new challenges arise each day. So it’s time to take off and show you how it all began in this brief history of aviation!
Most historians agree that the Wright Brothers — Orville and Wilbur — were the first to execute a manned flight back in 1903. Even though they were in the air for less than a minute, their pioneering contribution to aviation history still resonates to this day. But, as mentioned, people have been trying to reach the skies for thousands of years before that.
The history of aviation is fascinating due to the fact that, compared to other mechanical and technical disciplines, it took a really long time for humans to take to the air.
Records of early flight attempts and machines go as far back as 428 BC! Ancient cultures are full of flight-related stories, just like the tragic Icarus and Daedalus myth in which the son-father duo built wings out of wax. As you might know, Icarus then flew too high, and the wings melted. Similar myths originate from China, Europe, and India.
But, in the early history of flight, the most important inventions were kites, rotor wings, and hot air balloons.
One of the earliest flying machines were primitive kites, first constructed in 5th-century China and Japan. Moreover, some records reveal that these early kites were occasionally used to lift men for military purposes. China was also responsible for early versions of hot air balloons, invented around 300 BC for ceremonial purposes. And, rotor blades emerged on ancient children’s toys in 400 BC.
The next vital events occurred between the 14th and 17th century during the Renaissance. While the era marked a major boom for the arts, science, and politics, it also spawned some early aircraft designs.
In the early 1400s, Italian polymath Leonardo Da Vinci created plans and mechanical devices that became known as some of the earliest human-powered flying machines. One such invention is the aerial screw — an early design of the modern-day helicopter. Another is the ornithopter aka the flying machine, which features flapping wings powered by foot pedals.
Da Vinci created many designs for human-powered flight devices, and they were mostly inspired by bats and birds. Even though many of his devices didn’t work at the time, they provided some fundamental ideas for future aircraft. What’s more, Da Vinci is credited for inventing the parachute.
Another key figure during this era is Francesco Lana de Terzi. He is recognized for the first idea for an early airship which he called the “flying ship” in 1670.
The Dawn of Modern Aviation
The 18th century gave birth to two main aviation categories: heavier-than-air (aerodyne, e.g., airplanes) and lighter-than-air (aerostat, e.g., hot air balloons).
The second category is the most important for this century since that was the time when the modern hot air balloon was invented. The year 1783 is extremely important since many such experiments were conducted in France.
The first manned flight occurred in late November that same year in Paris. The Montgolfier Brothers made the balloon, and Pilâtre de Rozier operated it. It flew approximately 3,000 feet above the city for 25 minutes. Later, in 1784, the brothers launched a hot air balloon with seven passengers. In the United States, the first balloon took off much later in 1793.
However, early hot air balloons had a significant disadvantage due to the fact that they lacked maneuverability.
It was this weakness that led to the development of airships such as zeppelins and dirigibles.
19th Century Flight Development
In the 1800s, balloons were used all over Europe, and some were even utilized in warfare. During the French Revolution, a special Balloon division was established. However, the 19th century also witnessed countless experiments and attempts to lay the groundwork on modern aviation. In fact, in 1863, Guillaume Joseph Gabriel coined the phrase “aviation.”
Additionally, physicists and mechanics from the era experimented with crucial concepts such as Newton’s three laws of motion and fluid dynamics. Some early glider experiments in this century have laid the foundation of modern aerodynamics.
In this era, airships were the most important since they were the first powered aircraft capable of a controlled flight. Moreover, they were the first to transport passengers. The airships derived lift from hydrogen or helium gas instead of hot air balloons which were powered by heat.
Airships, zeppelins, and dirigibles were hugely popular from the end of the 1800s and into the 19th century. However, something much bigger loomed on the horizon.
20th Century: Aviation Boom
The date most associate as the birth of modern aviation was December 18, 1903.
On this day, the Wright Brothers executed four different flights near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Their design was called the Wright Flyer, and it was the first powered and controlled heavier-than-air aircraft.
The longest flight that day lasted for a little under 60 seconds, and it reached the height of 852 feet. With new maneuvering and powering abilities, the Wright Flyer marked the biggest step in aviation history so far. It was official; the Wright Brothers made the first successful plane!
Surprisingly, it only took 6 years after that until the modern airplane design was finalized.
By 1909, the characteristic modern plane shape, together with its recognizable tail was complete. Shortly after, in 1914, the first scheduled passenger flight took off from Florida and traveled to St. Petersburg.
In the next three decades, civil aviation would expand even further, but it didn’t take a long time before aircraft started shooting at one another.
World War I
During WWI and WWII, fighter planes and all-metal aircraft were crucial vehicles in warfare and military tactics.
In 1914, machine guns were placed on monoplanes like the Fokker Dr.I. This gave rise to new strategies, air-to-air combat, and hefty death tolls. Pilots even flew towards fame and competed to see who can shoot down the highest number of planes. One such pilot, the notorious Red Baron is documented to have shot down around 80 aircraft while flying. Furthermore, during this time of chaotic warfare, pilots needed a communications system to speak to the ground and their colleagues. Ultimately, the radiotelephone was invented, which was the first type of communication gear in history.
And, before WWII, a new invention came along that would change aviation forever: the jet engine.
World War II
By the end of World War II, all sides used some form of jet engine aircraft, with some examples being the Me 262 and Arado Ar 234. These jets were used for artillery attacks and were not able to deploy bombs. Additionally, helicopters also became popular in WWII and the century witnessed the completion of modern flight instruments and the radar.
Unfortunately, the true power of flight was revealed in August of 1945 during the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which leveled the two whole cities to the ground.
Supersonic and Family-Friendly
As WWII ended, it ushered in a new era of commercial jet airliners and large airline companies such as Pan Am. Manufacturers, like Boeing, developed planes that could transport hundreds of people as well as tons of cargo across the planet at high altitudes and great speeds. New transoceanic flights boosted the development of powerful engines, aerodynamics, metal design, electronic systems, communications equipment, and more crucial elements are still in use to this day.
The Boeing 747, for example, is one of the most iconic passenger planes in history and it first took off in 1970. Aviation reached its peak with the development of the Concorde, a supersonic passenger plane that was able to reach Mach 2.04. However, the craft was retired after high costs and a terrible accident. Among other iconic jets, airliners are passenger planes like the Airbus A320, Boeing 777, Airbus A330, Boeing 737, Airbus A380, etc. And, as you can see, it’s not hard to guess the two most popular commercial airplane manufacturing companies. Also, space exploration could not have been possible without thousands of years of aviation development. In the 1960s, astronauts became the first humans to enter space, not to mention, walk on the Moon in 1969.
In the present century, the basic design of planes has remained fairly consistent. Some of the biggest changes were the addition of electronic systems and powerful computers and control panels, etc. In terms of military aircraft design, aviation has expanded even further, with stealth planes, drones, etc. However, it looks like it will take some time before we’ll be able to travel in flying cars!
To Infinity and Beyond!
As you have seen, the history of flight, air travel, and aviation is simply fascinating! What started off as a dream inspired by birds took thousands of years to accomplish. After many failures, we finally got it right. Aside from the enormous advances aviation has gifted our world, it proved how persistent humans can be when it comes to reaching their goals!
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this brief history guide as much as we did and always remember to reach for the sky!