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Early Flying Machines - Pioneers Of Aviation

By Edited Mar 29, 2014 1 7

These Early Flying Machines Paved The Way To Flight As We Know It Today

The path to success

As you likely know, the first airplanes and helicopters built were not successes. Aviation's early failures however, gave way to some fantastic and functional early flying machines. These aircraft are fun to explore and study because they have so much character and their builders vision is clearly visible in their designs. Lacking the aviation knowledge of today, many aspects of these machines were built on a hunch, or an idea, rather than sound aeronautical theory. In my opinion, that is what makes these pseudo-experimental aircraft so interesting. Without these early flying machines, modern air travel wouldn't be what it is today.

Early Flying Machines

Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer

First powered, controlled, heavier than air flight. December 17, 1903

Although extremely primitive in appearance by today's standards, the Wright Brothers' 1903 flyer was the technological marvel of it's time. After more than 5 years spent designing and building the plane, the Wright Brothers used it to conduct the first heavier than air, controlled and powered flight on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The first flight of the aircraft was piloted by Orville Wright. He flew his invention a total of 120 feet and an altitude of 20 feet. The flight lasted 12 seconds. Longer flights were made that day with the record being set at 852 feet and 59 seconds of flight.

The location of the Wright brother's first flight

December 17, 1903

The Wright brothers design and build the world's first production aircraft

The Model A

wright brothers model a

The Wrights spent years working on the aircraft that would eventually be the world's first production aircraft. Having fulfilled the requirements for a heavier than air, powered and controlled plane as set out by the American government, the Wright brothers made their first sale to the American military in 1909.

This early airplane was controlled by a complicated lever system designed by Orville Wright. Wilbur found Orville's controls to be complicated and difficult to use. He blamed his inexperience with the controls for a 1908 crash that severely injured him and killed his co-pilot, Thomas Selfridge. He was the first person to ever die in a plane crash. Wilbur eventually designed a new control system and for a short while, the plane was available for order with a choice of either Orville or Wilbur Control systems.

One of the Wright brother's earliest flights

An ancestor of the modern helicopter

Vought-Sikorsky VS-300

Sikorsky VS 300

This was by no means the earliest helicopter, it was the first helicopter to use the single vertical tail rotor configuration that we are familiar with today. Igor Sikorsky is also credited with being the first to use a single motor to power both the main rotor blades and the tail rotor. Sikorsky had trouble perfecting the cyclic control on this machine, and ended up using 2 additional small rotors mounted horizontally on the tail to lift and lower the tail boom of the machine, driving it forward or backwards. 

Sikorsky used this machine to set some early records for rotary aircraft. He mounted pontoons on the skids and in 1941 made the first successful recorded helicopter landing and takeoff from water. That same year, he captured the endurance record for a sustained flight of more than an hour and half.


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Zeppelin LZ-1


Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin began building his first floating airship style aircraft in 1898. His first airship was built in a custom shop on a lake in Southern Germany that allowed the airship to be turned and exit the shop in any direction so it could face the wind. Although completed in the winter of 1899, Zeppelin decided to wait until the following summer of 1900 to test fly his airship.

Although riddled with problems, his first flight was successful. His first flight lasted more than 18 minutes and covered around 3 1/2 miles over the water. It was found to be difficult to control using only a lead weight moved backward or 

first zeppelin lz-1
forward within the machine to control pitch. It did not have any exterior stabilizer fins. The machine had two steel gondolas suspended beneath, each housing a 14 hp Daimler engine attached to a propeller via a long shaft. The ship was also found to be far too heavy to be practical. Zeppelin eventually had to abandon the LZ-1 project due to a lack of funding but it was used as the basis for later, improved models LZ-2 through LZ-4.

There were hundreds and hundreds of aircraft ideas and designs ranging from the 1700s through to today. They ranged from the feasible to the completely ridiculous. The first human flight was not in any engine-powered machine, it was actually in 1783 in a hot air balloon designed by two French brothers. It's a common misconception that the Wright Brother's flight in 1903 was the first flight of all time, it was not. It was the first powered, heavier than air flight.

These early flying machines paved the way for all of the fascinating aircraft that we have today. From the Boeing Dreamliner to the V22 Osprey, Chinook helicopters, space shuttles and heavy transport aircraft, they all evolved from these basic machines. It's important that we not take human flight for granted, it certainly didn't come easily. These folks designed and built based on hunches and basic aeronautical theory, they didn't get the benefit of any of the prerequisite pilot training that we have today. I chose these early flying machines for this list because these were all aircraft that played a major role in defining aviation as we know it today. Just imagine if Hawaii was still a long boat ride away.

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Jan 9, 2013 12:27pm
Interesting piece. New Zealanders would argue with some justification that Richard Pearse beat the Wright brothers.
Jan 9, 2013 4:44pm
It seems Pearce did fly a heavier than air, powered flight nine months earlier than the Wrights. The debate would seem to center around the meaning of 'sustained and controlled flight'. Pearce's aircraft was less advanced. Wikipedia's writeup on Pearce does a good job of explaining it. Thanks for reading!
Feb 24, 2013 12:48am
I would have included French airman Louis Bleriot (first flew the Channel in one unbroken run, and one crazy, but brave, SOB). He also developed the first successful monoplane. He's one of my faves.

Also, good job for including the zeppelin -- a lot of people tend to overlook them as the luxury liners of the air they were for a brief time.
Feb 24, 2013 6:04am
Perhaps he shall find his way into a second article. Thanks you for reading.
Feb 24, 2013 7:21am
Very interesting and informative article! thanks for sharing! thumbs up!
Feb 25, 2013 8:10pm
Thanks for reading, mikerobbers!
Mar 9, 2013 5:30pm
As it turns out, there are hundreds of noteworthy aircraft and airmen from the 18th and 19th century. I think I'm going to do more writing on this.
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  1. "Wright Flyer." Wikipedia. 28/02/2013 <Web >
  2. "The Wright Brothers - First Flight, 1903." eye witness to history. 28/02/2013 <Web >
  3. "The Wright Brothers Make the First Flight." about.com. 9/03/2013 <Web >
  4. "The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age." Smithsonian national air and space museum. 9/03/2013 <Web >

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