Science Sunday 08-13-2017

A Brief History of Flight, Part 1

The Wright Brothers

I am in the process of developing a new physics course for students interesting in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones.  It occurred to me to put together a brief history of human flight.

Most of us are familiar with the immense and courageous achievements of Orville and Wilbur Wright, brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and who shared an inextinguishable passion for manned flight.

While there were many pioneers in manned flight, no one now doubts that the Wright brothers achieved the first heavier-than-air, fixed wing, controlled and powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

At first ignored by the press and the US government, the brothers would go on to become world celebrities, showing off their latest aircraft design in Europe and the US in 1908.

Wilbur died at the relatively young age of 45 years, of typhoid fever.  Orville was more fortunate, living to the ripe old age of 76, when he succumbed to his second heart attack.

The video above is a short but reverential bio of the Wright brothers and their indispensable sister and business partner Katharine.   A more direct and compact biography of the Wright brothers early achievements can be viewed here:


The Montgolfier Brothers

Lesser well known are the Montgolfier brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne, who invented the hot air balloon in the early 1780s.  The first human flight was in one of their balloons.  It flew over Paris for over 5 miles at a height of 3000 feet on November 21, 1783, to the incredulous surprise of many dignitaries, including John Adams, his wife Abigail, and Thomas Jefferson.  HBO recreated this event at considerable expense in its award winning series John Adams.  The above video shows that part of the series, including some brilliant dialogue between the principals.




Of course, the desire of humankind to fly did not start with the Montgolfier or Wright brothers, as witnessed by the Greek legend of Icarus, son of Daedalus.

As the story goes, Daedalus was an Athenian craftsman who designed and built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete, a maze meant to imprison the half-man half-bull monster, the Minotaur.

Imprisoned in the labyrinth by Minos himself, Daedalus fashioned wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son to escape with.  He warned his son not to fly too close to the Sun, but Icarus could not control his impetuous self, and flying too high, his wings melted over the sea on their way back to Greece, with Icarus plunging to his death.


The Red Baron


After the Wright brothers showed the world that manned flight was possible, many improvements in aircraft design rapidly ensued, including using aircraft in war.

Blimps or dirigibles were used exclusively at first, for reconnaissance only, but it soon became apparent that fixed wing aircraft could do a better job of both reconnaissance and warfare.

The Germans were the first to realize that a machine gun could be synchronized to fire between an airplane’s propellers, and they quickly took advantage of this design improvement.

The most notable of German World War I flying aces was the inestimable Baron von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron (his plane was painted red).  He is credited with 80 confirmed aerial combat kills, but was himself shot down before the end of the war.


Bessie Coleman

Anyone who lives in the Chicagoland area and has visited O’Hare Airport has driven by or on Bessie Coleman Drive, named after Bessie Coleman, the first African-American and Native-American woman to earn a pilot’s license.

Born the 10th of 13 children to George Coleman, a Texas sharecropper, and his wife Susan, Bessie distinguished herself in school, but soon grew restless, wanting to make something of her life.  She moved to Chicago, saving her money as she worked both as a manicurist and in a chili restaurant.  Wanting badly to be a licensed pilot, but denied that opportunity in her home country, she set sail for France, where she soon learned how to fly.

She returned to the states with her pilot’s license to much notoriety, but soon realized that she would need additional flight training to make a living as a barnstormer, or aerial acrobatic pilot, so she returned to Europe for additional advanced training.

She returned to the US and to a successful career as a barnstormer, but died unexpectedly in a plane crash in 1926.


Author: Bob Mahoney

Physics teacher

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