Flight before Wright
Although many credit Wilbur and Orville Wright with “inventing the airplane,” the human desire to fly has existed for centuries, long before the pair finally flew in 1903. The Federal Aviation Administration introduces its Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge with the creation of aviation: before the Wright Brothers.
Consider the kite, one of mankind’s first experiments with flight, which originated in China approximately 2,000 years ago.
Scientists of the 1500s, including Leonardo da Vinci, based their inspiration from birds and sought to give humans wings. Nearly 200 years later, with the successful flight of hot air balloons, inventors found themselves in the skies. They had the lift and power that had alluded 16th-century scientists but were not satisfied with the limited control of a hot air balloon.
It turns out the kite mastered what the balloon and winged-contraptions could not: direction. Englishman Sir George Cayley used this centuries-old invention and became “Father of Aerial Navigation.”
“Cayley discovered the basic principles on which the modern science of aeronautics is founded; built what is recognized as the first successful flying model; and tested the first full-size man-carrying airplane.”
- FAA Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, chapter 1, page 1
Nearly 50 years after Cayley died, the Wright Brothers earned fame with the successful flight of a biplane, an aircraft with two sets of fixed, parallel wings.
It took scientists and inventors thousands of years to fly, but now, in 2018, approximately 5,000 airplanes fly over the United States at any time.