A Brief History of Flight

Brief History of Flight

June 30, 2020 | By JETechnology Staff

For thousands of years, people have looked up at the sky and imagined what it would be like to fly. Today, people no longer have to imagine that feeling. Let’s explore how humankind developed aviation technology to fulfill that innate desire for flight.

History of Flight Timeline

A comprehensive history of flight could fill volumes of books. However, we can take a bird’s eye view of this history and touch on the highlights that demonstrate how flight developed over time, starting in ancient history and ending with our current century.

The Earliest Contributions to Flight

Our timeline begins as far back as around 1000 B.C. when kites first appeared in China. Kites were a significant invention in the history of aviation because they are the oldest known device that is heavier than air and uses lift from the wind to fly. This same principle would be used later to keep airplanes in flight.

Throughout the next millennia, people occasionally theorized and experimented with flight. One of the most famous examples comes from Leonardo da Vinci. He wrote extensively on the topic of flight and created over 500 sketches of various flying machines.

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Hot Air and Gas Balloons

In the late 18th century, the hot air balloon arrived on the scene, marking a significant milestone in the history of flight. People were finally able to fly, starting with the first untethered hot air balloon ride in Paris on November 21, 1783.  This balloon, built by the Montgolfier brothers, was made from paper and silk. It soared about 500 feet above the ground and traveled over five miles in 25 minutes.

Just 10 days later, Jacques Alexander Charles and Nicholas Louis Robert launched the first gas balloon. Rather than relying solely on hot air, this balloon used hydrogen. Gas balloons were more practical than hot air balloons. In 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries crossed the English Channel in a gas balloon.

Steam-Powered Airships and Biplane Gliders

By the mid-19th century, people were exploring other options for flying. William Henson published a design for an aerial steam carriage in 1843. That same year, George Cayley published a biplane design. In 1852, Henri Giffard completed the first flight with a steam-powered airship.

In the 1890s, Otto Lilienthal experimented with and then successfully flew biplane gliders, though he ended up dying due to a crash in 1896. Octave Chanute also experimented with biplane gliders in 1896. The first major occurrence in flight in the 20th century was Alberto Santos-Dumont’s flight around the Eiffel Tower in an airship.

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Powered Flight

A watershed moment in aviation history came in 1903 when Orville and Wilbur Wright — brothers from Dayton, Ohio — successfully executed the first powered, sustained and controlled flight for a heavier-than-air flying machine. This famous flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina lasted just 12 seconds, but the Wright Brothers quickly refined their machine to make it more functional.

By 1909, the newly invented airplane was sophisticated enough to cross the English Channel. As soon as powered flight became possible, aviation technology advanced rapidly. Planes were quickly militarized, and brave aviators set new records in flight.

Jet-Propelled Airplanes

The 1930s saw another significant development in flight history: the invention of the jet engine. Frank Whittle is credited with this invention since he registered a patent for his turbojet engine in 1930. A German physicist named Hans von Ohain was the first to develop a jet plane. The plane, called the Heinkel He 178, flew for the first time on August 27, 1939.

Jet Propelled Airplanes

Other scientists and engineers, such as Anselm Franz, would build on these early models to create powerful jet fighters for use in World War II and eventually commercial jetplanes.

The Space Race

In the next major chapter in the history of flight, people set their sights on achieving new heights. The space race was on. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made earth satellite into space. This satellite was called Sputnik 1. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter space. The following year, the U.S. sent John H. Glenn, Jr. into space to orbit the Earth.

In 1969, American astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. made the first moon landing, and the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s all saw historic launches. The first space station was launched in 1971, followed by the first reusable spacecraft in 1981 and finally the first two modules of the International Space Station in 1998. In 2000, astronauts arrived at the International Space Station.

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History of Flight FAQ

Since our history of flight timeline was brief, you may still have some questions about how flight developed. We have answers to some of the most common questions about flight history.

Who Started Aviation?

A long list of scientists, engineers, inventors and visionaries contributed to aviation’s development, so it’s difficult to credit one person with starting aviation. That said, Orville and Wilbur Wright tend to receive the most credit for ushering in a new era where people could finally fly as they had imagined doing for millennia.

Who Was the First Person to Fly?

There is no straightforward answer to this question as historical accounts suggest that many people attempted to fly in some way or another throughout early history. None of the attempts were successful, however. Francois Pilatrê de Rozier and Francois Laurent, Marquis of Arlanders were the first people to fly in a hot air balloon, so they may be considered the first to fly. Orville Wright was the first to successfully experience flight with a heavier-than-air machine.

When Was the First Manned Flight?

The first manned flight in a lighter-than-air device occurred on  October 15, 1783, when Francois Pilatrê de Rozier stood in a hot air balloon, tethered to the ground. For heavier-than-air flight, Sir George Cayley executed the first manned glider flight with the help pf his coachman in 1853. The Wright Brothers’ 1903 flight was the first manned flight of a powered flying machine.

What Year Did the First Passenger Plane Fly?

People started using airplanes for transportation earlier than you might think. On New Year’s Day in 1914, the Airboat Line took its inaugural flight — the first-ever scheduled passenger flight. The passenger was Abram C. Pheil, who won the ticket at auction. The flight went from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa, Florida. The Airboat Line became quite popular, operating 12 flights every week.

How Long Can a Modern-Day Airplane Fly?

The answer to this question depends on a number of factors, such as the size and type of airplane in question. Recently, the Boeing 787 set the record for the longest passenger flight, covering 9,765 miles of airspace without stopping.

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With over 75 years of experience in the industry, JETechnology Solutions understands how important it is to appreciate aviation’s rich past and to embrace its innovative future. We create customized aircraft maintenance stands right here in the U.S. Our past partnerships include Boeing, Airbus and the U.S. military, so we understand how to effectively address a wide range of needs. Contact us online today to learn more.

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