Written by: on August 17, 2020 @ 6:00 am

Traveling back to ancient Greece, we find the story of Icarus and Daedalus, the tragic story of father and son using wings fashioned of wax and feathers to escape the island of Crete. While in this ancient myth the pair were successful until the sun melted the wax holding their wings together, humans have dreamed of the ability to fly since the dawn of mankind. Archeologists have dated drawings of winged humans back to prehistoric caves, there are many tales of blundered flight attempts using artificial wings, and even famous painter Leonardo da Vinci designed a flight machine after extensive bird observations. How did we get from running off cliffs with wings strapped to our arms to a world in which there are 100,000 plane flights each day?  

In China around 400 B.C.E., the kite was invented; the first successful flying object. These kites were used in religious ceremonies, some advanced kites were used to test weather conditions, and others were simply for fun. Approximately 2,000 years later, painter, sculptor, musician and astronomist Leonardo da Vinci created more than 100 drawings detailing his ideas on flight. He designed the Ornithopter, a human powered flight machine with flapping wings. While there is no evidence showing this device was ever made into a physical prototype, but da Vinci’s flight machine was the first to have been more than strapping wings to human arms. Though Leonardo da Vinci’s flight machine was better designed than those previous, today’s engineers know that his ornithopter would never have made if off the ground.

When thinking of human flight, we mostly reference planes and helicopters, but one invention often goes unmentioned: the hot air balloon. French brothers, Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, were wealthy paper manufacturers in the 1780’s. After experimenting with paper and fabric, they observed that filling these bags with heater air caused the bag to raise. The Montgolfiers build a 33-foot silk balloon which was lined with paper, and publicly demonstrated the balloon launch with no one aboard, rising the balloon to 6,000 feet for around 10 minutes. Today, hot air ballooning is still an exciting experience and hobby for many. In clear skies and mild weather, hot air balloon festivals occur in which hundreds on enthusiasts launch at once!

George Cayley invented the first glider in the 1800’s, this glider used movements of the body to steer. This glider was designed so that air would lift the device, helping it to soar for longer periods of time. After many improvements upon Cayley’s glider, we arrive to the Wright brothers in the year 1900. The brothers created a ‘wind tunnel’ model of the glider, perfecting the form. After developing the ideal glider which incorporated steering points within the glider’s tail and wings, Wilbur and Orville Wright developed an early engine with around 12 horsepower, the same size engine of today’s push lawnmowers! On December 17th, 1903 in Big Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, the Wright brothers’ “flyer” traveled 120 feet in twelve seconds, with Orville successfully pivoting and landing the flying craft. Wilbur and Orville then returned to their homes in Dayton, Ohio in which they perfected their ‘Flyer III’, piloting the early plane for 39 minutes, traveling 24 miles before the plane ran out of fuel.

From kites to helicopters, helicopters to landing machinery on Mars, humans have a long history with aviation. National Aviation Day is celebrated each year on August 19th, celebrating the birthday of aviation pioneer Orville Wright. This Aviation Day, you can celebrate the past of human flight and our prospective future. Without amazing scientists, engineers, pilots and astronauts, human flight would never have been possible.

Build your own flying object! Build a flying paper helicopter with nothing more than paper and paperclips! Find the template and directions by visiting: https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/paper_helicopter.pdf

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