Tour in Aviation History

To travel from Cairo to Mecca in less than two hours nowadays is an unexciting fact, but what about hearing this sentence 200 years ago? How could man be able to fly rather than travelling everywhere? Who was the first flying-man in the history? All these questions and more will be answered here.

In this article, we will travel backwards through time to see the bookmark events in the history of aviation, fasten your seatbelts and let’s take a tour.

Prehistoric man was first astonished when he found these creatures which can fly and travel anywhere without stopping at obstacles like high mountain ranges. He wondered how and why do they fly while he can’t get off the ground.

Nearly all human civilisations and societies depicted flying creatures and figures in their cultural remains and artefacts.

Yet, it was extremely strange for archaeologists in 1898 to excavate the ancient Egyptian “Saqqara Bird” which is currently exhibited in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo with a Vertical Stabilizer, something which shockingly opposes the generally natural horizontal-shaped tails of birds. In the scientific field of Aerodynamics vertical stabilizers are used in aircrafts, missiles, boats, and automobiles to reduce aerodynamic Side Slip and provide direction stability.

So far no archaeologist or Egyptologist knows the reason why did the ancient Egyptians create that Saqqara Bird with that aerodynamic tail unlike the tails of birds in their biodiverse Egyptian environment.

Flying in Mythology

Saqqara Bird

The ancient Egyptians made “Saqqara Bird” with an aerodynamic Vertical Stabilizer like airplanes unlike the natural tails of birds!

“Watch the sky, did you see these birds? These creatures that God gave them the secret of flying, if we can fly like them, we can escape from this prison,” said Daedalus to his son Icarus.

According to ancient Greek mythology Daedalus and Icarus were craftsmen who built a maze as ordered by a king to prison the Minotaur, however, the king sent them to prison instead. Since they found that the only way to escape was to fly, Daedalus fabricated wings from feather & wax, then he informed Icarus how to fly and warned him not to let the Sun melt the wax -(scientifically wrong)-.

Successfully, both flew away from prison but Icarus got charmed by freedom and kept getting higher and higher until the sun melted the wax and he crashed to death.

First Pilot

No one is known to have tried to fly till he was born, Abbas Ibn Firnas (810–887 A.D.), the first pilot in history. Since childhood, this Muslim Berber Andalusian polymath was fond of birds, he tried to discover how do they fly, and he even tried to mimic them.

He created wings from feather and stood at an edge of a hill in front of the people of Ronda, Spain; then he jumped in the air and flew.

“He flew a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but, in alighting again on the place whence he had started, his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one,” as the Moroccan historian al-Maqqari described. He inspired humanity.

Another inspirer, Leonardo Da Vinci’s innovations didn’t stop at any borders including aviation. He made some conceptual drawings for flying machine such as the Ornithopter, which is an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings like birds.

And the Aerial Screw which aims to compress air to obtain flight. Although this Italian genius tried to help humanity to fly, yet his innovations were impractical.

Chinese have also discovered the power of hot air to produce lift a long time ago. They used this technique in making their worldwide known Sky Lanterns.

Following them on the same track, Montgolfier brothers who were warming themselves on a cold night beside the fire were inspired by some hot air that entered a bag near them.

The bag moved upwards for a few seconds. By this smart and lucky observation, they made the first Lighter-than-Air flight by inserting hot air to a balloon connected to a basket to carry payload.

The first trial carrying living creatures, a sheep, a duck, and a rooster, was in September 19, 1783, followed by a manned flight in November 21.

Very quickly after this, the French physicist Jacques Alexandre César Charles made a hydrogen-filed balloon on the first of December in the same year.

Finally, humankind got off the ground, but this invention gives nothing to Heavier-than-Air flight except the will of fly.

Golden Age of Aviation Pioneers

Da Vinci’s Aerial Screw

Some researchers believe that Da Vinci’s Aerial Screw was a predecessor for helicopters, however, in fact, the Aerial Screw depends on the idea of climbing by screwing through the body of the air and the atmosphere, while on the contrary, a helicopter lifts through pressuring the air underneath its body.

In 1799, Sir George Cayley introduced a new concept of flying. He separated lift from thrust. He made a fixed wing to provide lift as a different mechanism to provide thrust. Cayley combined vertical and horizontal tails to control the airplane.

After manufacturing the first ever modern-configuration airplane, Cayley produced his model glider in 1804. Despite the fact that it’s too trivial nowadays, it was a great invention during his time.

The English engineer didn’t stop at this step, on the contrary he continued his way inventing the Airfoil too. Airfoil is a curved surface that produces lift when air passes over it.

Moreover, he made several other contributions to aerodynamic stability and control of aircrafts. For all these magnificent contributions, this British man earned the title of “Father of Modern Aviation”.

For the following decades, there were no important events happened in the field of aviation till the rising of Otto Lilienthal (1848-1894) the inventor of the first controlled glider in 1891 after many trials and studies.

Furthermore, this German hero made more than 2,000 successful gliders and his papers were published all over the world. In addition, he wrote a book about birds and how they can fly, “Birds’ Flight as the Basis of Aviation“.

In August 9, 1896, Lilienthal went gliding as usual, but unfortunately the glider king stalled and fell down from an altitude around 250 metres and died in the next day because of his injuries.

Last Step, Two Cyclists

Since their childhood, they were astounded by flying and managed to study the flying mechanisms of birds, but they discovered that birds twists their wings to prevent their lateral rotation (rolling) in case of cross wind.

Through this brilliant observation, they introduced a new control surface for rolling the aircraft that is “Aileron” and also introduced the twist angle of the wing to provide lateral stability.

After countless researches and experiments Wright Brothers made three gliders with high levels of stability and control.

The dream of Heavier-than-Air flight was successfully accomplished at their fingertips, but it wasn’t easy as the major problem was thrust. No engine at that time met the qualifications they needed.

As a result, they designed and built one themselves. They made a 12-horse power engine with weight of 91 kg and mounted it to their 3rd glider and after some modifications they named it “Wright Flyer 1”.

In December 14, 1903, in an airshow, Wilbur operated Flyer 1 and left the ground; unfortunately it stalled and fell down. After two days of repairs and rigging, they repeated the trial and this time they succeeded.

Finally, the humanity’s first heavier-than-air flying dream became true, and the era of invading skies and space has started.

This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.


  • Anderson, John D., Jr.: Introduction to flight, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2005.
  • Lynn Townsend White, Jr. (Spring, 1961). “Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition”, Technology and Culture 2 (2), p. 97-111 [100f.]