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The idea of flight was not new by 1903 when the Wright brothers took off from Kitty Hawk. In fact, several inventors had attempted flying experimental air machines, some more successfully than others. Many of the inventors in this section did experiments that greatly contributed to the final practical model airplane but did not actually succeed in creating a practical model. Others, as many people debate, actually created flight machines just as successful as the Wright's flyer and invented them before the Wrights revealed their airplane. So who was first? You can decide.
Sir George Cayley
Sir George Cayley has been called the "father" of aerial navigation. In 1803 he developed the first proper understanding of the principles of flight and constructed a series of models to prove his ideas. In 1853, Cayley’s coachman flew across Brompton dale in the north of England in the first glider . Cayley defined the form of the present day airplane by breaking away from the previous ideas of how powered flight would be achieved. The drawing he made on a silver disc in 1799 shows a machine with a fixed wing, a fuselage and a tail. It also had separate systems to provide lift, propulsion and control. Cayley later tried to develop the "prime mover" that he realized was necessary for powered flight, but unfortunately his gunpowder engines were not reliable.
He carried out the first serious, experimentally based aeronautical research. The reverse side of the disc shows Cayley’s analysis of the lift and drag forces on a wing surface, representing a significant step in our understanding of flight, and in 1804 Cayley followed it up with experiments using a "whirling arm," the first ever scientific testing of aerofoils—the key to the Wright brothers' success .
Otto Lilienthal has been described as “the worlds' first true aviator” and his results and methods were an inspiration to many other pioneers, particularly the Wright brothers. He was the first to realize that the only way to gain essential experience in design and control was to first learn how to glide, a feat he attempted by launching himself from an artificial hill near Berlin or from the Rhinower Hills. Lilienthal focused on the canopied form of bird wing, rather than attempting to develop the cambered aerofoil, and just before his death had even completed a glider with motor driven wing tips. His scientific work with whirling-arm experiments formed the basis of all subsequent aerodynamic investigations.
Lilienthal's untimely death had a profound effect on the history of flight. While flying one of his older gliders in 1896, he was struck by a gust of wind. The nose of the machine was forced up, and he was not able to control the resulting stall. He fell 15 meters, breaking his spine. He died with the words, “Opfer mussen gebracht werden” (Sacrifices must be made).
Horatio Phillips is best known for his patented "double surface aerofoil" sections. His results and designs were republished by Chanute and almost certainly influenced the Wright Brother’s understanding of their own wind tunnel data.
Phillips built a wind tunnel using steam injection to create the airflow. In 1884 he patented a series of curved aerofoils designed “… in such a way as to as to cause a partial vacuum to be created over a portion of the upper surface of the blade thus aiding the air below to support the weight.”
Phillips' steam powered models and man carrying planes have been described as "flying Venetian blinds" and even as a "flying runner bean frame." His 1904 plane made only a brief hop, but the1907 construction made a flight of 500 feet at Steatham, the first powered hop in England.
Using Paris as a stage for his aeronautical experiments, the wealthy young Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont achieved internationally fame for several years as the first man to have achieved powered flight in 1906. However, as the Wright brothers' flight in 1903 drew more acceptance as the first practical method of air travel, Santos-Dumont became more recognized as being the first powered flight in Europe.
Santos-Dumont moved to Paris when he was 18 to live and study. His first successful flight in 1898 occurred not on an airplane, but on a "dirigible," a hot-air balloon that could be steered. In 1901, he flew his hot air balloon from St. Cloud, France, around the Eiffel Tower and back. It was the first such flight and won him the Deutsch Prize and a prize from the Brazilian government.
After the Wright brothers' flights in 1903, Santos-Dumont began to experiment with heavier-than-air machines. He constructed a vertical-propeller model, and, in 1906, built a machine, the 14-bis, on the principle of the box kite. In October 1906, he won the Deutsch-Archdeacon Price for the first officially observed heavier-than-air powered flight in Europe, flying his canvas and bamboo biplane. In November 1906, he flew 725 feet (220 meters) in 21 seconds. In 1909, he produced his "Demoiselle" or "Grasshopper" monoplane, the precursor to the modern light plane. In 1932 he committed suicide over the use of aircraft in war.
Cody patented a two-celled box kite (1901) following a similar design by Lawrence Hargrave, the main difference being that Cody added wings for lift. This was the basic Cody 'bat' kite, of which there are many variations, considered to be one of the most beautiful kites ever designed. Cody's original aim was to provide a man-lifting system for observation purposes during the Boer War in South Africa, an idea later taken up by the British military.
His kite design was demonstrated to the British Admiralty in 1903 as a way to use kits as military observation posts. Although his contraption did not resemble an airplane, like Santos-Dumont's it could reach heights of over 3,000 feet. The Army was so impressed with Cody's model that in 1906 they appointed him as chief instructor in kiting at the Balloon School in Aldershot.
He began building military airships in 1907, the first of which was Nulli Secundus , designed by Cody and Col J E Capper RE. Cody continued to experiment with aircraft until 1913, when he was killed in a crash over Laffan's Plain.
Facts from all of these articles were taken from http://firstflight.open.ac.uk/index.html
On August 14, 1901, a little over two years before the Wright brothers took off from Kitty Hawk, a German inventor named Gustave Whitehead soared over Bridgeport, Connecticut in a birdlike monoplane for approximately a half mile. Later on the same day, Whitehead and his power driven plane are reported to have made three other flights, according to the Bridgeport Sunday Post .
Stanley Beach, aeronautical editor for the Scientific American , wrote an article which appeared in the January 1906 issue, reporting "a single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air and which was constructed by Whitehead in 1901 was the only other photograph besides that of Langley's [scale model] machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight."
However, the plane was anything but practical, even by Whitehead's own admission. The plane's motor did not exceed a speed of 1,000 rpm, although the motor was sufficient to fly against a slight wind. However, on January 17, 1902, Whitehead reportedly made two flights in a monoplane with a kerosene-burning engine: one over Lordship Manor for two miles, and one over Long Island Sound for seven miles. The Wrights' longest flight was 852 feet. However, because Whitehead failed to document his flights, and in 1939 Stanley Beach recounted his earlier statements about Whitehead's flight, the inventor was not publicly credited with having invented powered flight.
For more information, see articles at http://www.flightjournal.com/articles/wff/wff1.asp and http://www.deepsky.com/~firstflight/ .
Augustus Moore Herring
Before Cody began experimenting with kites, Augustus Herring had successfully flown a man-supporting glider. On Oct. 11, 1899, he flew 50 feet aboard a glider with a compressed air engine in St. Joseph, Mich., according to Phil Scott's book on early aviation history, The Shoulders of Giants . Herring said he took an eight- to 10-second flight 10 days later, flying a total of 73 feet.
Herring's glider flight did not impress aeronautical professionals for a couple of reasons: he could not steer the machine and could not sustain the flight for very long. The three-horsepower compressed air engine Herring connected to the glider could operate for just 30 seconds at a time .
Herring's flight "wasn't significant," said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Clément Ader and Sir Hiram Maxim
Clément Ader and Sir Hiram Maxim achieved two of the first "flights," according to a 1918 article in the Journal of the Society of Automotive Engineers : " The first power[ed] flight of an Airplane was not, as many suppose, that made by Ader in France in 1897. [It was made in] the large steam-powered machine designed and built by Sir Hiram Maxim."
Both airplanes got off the ground. The French builder, Clément Ader, made two wild bat-winged machines, powered by steam engines. In 1890, the first one got a few inches into the air and skimmed the ground for fifty yards. But it had a design flaw that didn't show up: Ader hadn't provided adequate control. Still, he thought he had succeeded and immediately began a larger version. When he flew it in 1897, it barely got off the ground and then crashed.
Maxim built a huge, hundred-foot-wingspan, multi-winged machine in England. It was powered by two lightweight 180-horsepower steam engines that he had designed for it. Maxim began flight tests in 1894. On the third try the plane was powered up to forty miles per hour, left its track, flew two hundred feet and crashed.