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Aircraft Building: A Bit of History

How long have people been building aircraft ? A lot longer than you probably realize!  Here are a few stories regarding the history of aviation and how the work of a few has contributed to what we know as aviation today.  Note how important it has been to have openly shared data, and how the stepping stones of discoveries / progress would have been enhanced if access to knowledge could have been available to all interested parties.   With the internet and EAA chapters available around the world, and with the current emphasis on data and analysis driven decision making, it is now possible to synergize instead of just inventing.

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Thanks to the very old literary tradition of China, we are able to find written records about the history of kite building and the fascination of flying.


The first kites are reported to have been developed during the Zhou Dynasty (BCE 770-221) in the province of Shandong (Eastern China) more than 2800 years ago in the city of Lu, which is the birthplace of Confucius (551-479 BCE).  Typically the first kites were flat rectangles. About a thousand years after the first kites appeared, paper began to be used instead of silk. 


Much later, the book of Han Fei Zi reports that Mozi (who was a philosopher who lived a century later than Confucius) wrote in his texts about the mu yang (wooden kite) he built with Lu Ban (a  master of wooden joinery and philosopher).  This was during the period of the Warring-Empires (475-221 BCE).  Thanks to the very old literary tradition of China, we are able to find written records about the history of kite building and the fascination of flying.

Daedalus and Icarus, Ancient Greece

Daedalus and Icarus

Daedalus, the father of Icarus, urgently needed to escape the prison that his king, Minos, kept him in on the island of Crete located off the Southern tip of Greece.  Daedalus was imprisioned because he had killed King Minos’ beast the Minotaur (half man and half bull) and then run away with King Minos’ daughter Ariadne.   Believing that King Minos controlled all the escape routes by sea or land, Daedalus came up with a plan to escape by flying away.   

Hatching a  plan for escape (pun intended), Daedalus collected lots of bird feathers, and then fashioned wings for his son Icarus and himself by using wax to hold the feathers in place.   He also realized that watching the weather and planning a proper first-flight route was very important.  Because if they did not fly a route that remained out of the sun’s heat rays, their feather wings would fall apart.  


We all know the stories of offspring who are inquisitive and dismissive of their parent’s advice, spread their wings, and fly the nest to go their own way.   From a tall tower, father and son successfully flew away from their prison, but soon Icarus was overcome with the exhilaration of flying and flew up higher and higher towards the sun where upon the heat of the sun melted the wax, disassembled the feathers, and Icarus crashed down into the sea.  This sea is forever known as the Icarian Sea.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, 15th Century

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Truly a Renaissance man, Leonardo was by all accounts a genius.   Being curious about everything, he wanted to know how everything worked, and being very good at studying, designing and making all sorts of interesting things, he put his manifold talents to use.  Born near Florence Italy, he brought much infusion into the lives of many including his friend, the King of France, who gave him a home near the king’s castle.


As a scientist, mathematician, engineer, philosopher, inventor, anatomist, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician, writer and painter of "world" renown, Leonardo actively immersed himself into areas that few people even gave thought to.  With all these traits and experiences, and knowing about the spiral thread of screws, da Vinci reasoned that this technique could be used to screw up through the air (as shown in his sketch above) and thereby cause the aircraft to lift up. 


Some 500 years passed by until, in the 20th century, the Russian inventor and genius engineer, Igor Sikorsky, designed, and built the first successful helicopter.

Evangelista Torricelli, 17th Century

Evangelista Torricelli

In 1640, Evangelista Torricelli discovered that air has mass. When experimenting with measuring mercury, he discovered that air put pressure on the mercury.

Francesco Lana used this discovery to begin to plan for an airship in the late 1600s. He drew an airship on paper that used the idea that air has mass.


The ship was a hollow sphere which would have the air taken out of it. Once the air was removed, the sphere would have less mass (therefore less weight) than an equivalent volume of air and float up in that air.


Each of four spheres would be attached to a boat-like structure and then the whole machine would float. The actual design was never tried.


The Hot Air Balloon, 1783

The Hot Air Balloon
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In a 1738 publication titled "Hydrodynamica" Bernoulli introduced the concepts which formed the kinetic theory of gasses.  To quote Wikapedia  "A consequence of this law is that if the velocity increases then the pressure falls. This is exploited by the wing of an aeroplane which is designed to create an area above its surface where the air velocity increases. The pressure of this area is lower and so the wing is sucked upwards."


The Montgolfier brothers (Joseph-Michel Montgolfier  and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier) designed and crafted the first hot air balloon in 1783.  They launched their balloon with King Louis16th  and his Queen Marie Antoinette and their court in attendance. Although the scientific knowledge was prevalent about hot air being lighter than cold air, it was the inventive Montgolfier brothers who created the hot air balloon, which at first carried a sheep, a duck and a rooster, and flew some 1600 feet.


A month later they had a flight with a French nobleman aboard using a rope to tether the hot air balloon to the ground.

Sir George Cayley, 1853 - Built first man-carrying glider

Sir George Cayley

Sir George Cayley, had begun his aerial experiments in 1796 (at the time of the revolution in the British Colonies south of Canada), when, at the age of twenty-three, he built a helicopter device of cork and feathers.   Daedalus’ idea of using feathers has been used again.  From then until his death in 1857 at the age of eighty-three, the problem of manned flight-and possible solutions for mankind were aspects never far from his inquisitive thinking.

Cayley made several important discoveries.  He realized the secret of flight wasn't to be learned from birds' flapping wings, but by watching birds glide with their wings fixed. He identified the three forces acting on the weight of any flying object -- lift, drag, and thrust.  He conceived the idea of a lifting airfoil.


There in the North of England, Sir George Cayley designed and built a glider that would support a person. In 1849 Cayley built a triple wing glider, along the lines of his 1799 design, and tested the device with a 10-year old boy as the pilot. The gliding machine carried the boy aloft on at least one short flight.  The first adult-carrying glider flight was made across Bromptondale in the north of England by Cayley’s coachman who, under his master's watchful eye and with the entire household of Brompton Hall looking on, gamely climbed aboard.

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Frederick Marriott’s steam propelled, hydrogen filled dirigible 1869

Frederick Marriott

In 1866 Frederick Marriott of San Francisco formed The Aerial Steam Navigation Company with the goal of building and operating a large steam-powered airship between New York and California, bridging the gap between the population centers of the United States and the burgeoning gold fields of the Pacific.

By 1869, Marriott had constructed a 37' long prototype named the Hermes Jr. Avitor, after the fleet-footed Roman messenger god who flew through the air on winged sandals. The prototype carried no pilot and was powered by a 1-horsepower steam engine. Buoyant lift was provided by a hydrogen-filled envelope, with stabilizers and elevator surfaces attached to allow for controlled flight. The vehicle was successfully tested at Tanforan, near modern-day San Francisco International Airport. The aircraft completed a circular flight of approximately 1 mile and was recovered successfully.

Marriott planned construction of a larger version capable of carrying passengers and crew, but completion of the first rail link between east and west coasts in 1869 reduced transcontinental travel times to a week or less, and the stock market crash of 1870 prevented him from securing the necessary financing.

Otto Lilienthal conducted fact driven research prior to 1896

Otto Lilienthal

Living near Berlin, Otto Lilienthal believed that it is most important to know how to glide, and thus conducted extensive research and made many data driven discoveries.   Nearly everyone in the fledgling days of aviation looked with inspiration to the research data that had been compiled by Lilienthal before his untimely death in 1896.


To prove out his theories, he would create gliders and launch himself off from a man-made hill on the outskirts of Berlin.  His belief was that canopied wings (as seen in the photo) were the way to build glider wings rather than the cambered airfoil that the Wright brothers later decided to use.


As is true even today, a nose up angle of attack that is too extreme for the air to flow smoothly over the wing will cause the wing to "stall" and lose its lifting capability.   This happened during a test flight when Lilienthal was struck by a gust of wind. The gust of wind forced the nose of the glider up, thereby causing the stall.   The crash broke his spine and he died shortly afterwards.


But, thankfully, his well documented theories and test flight results survived to be used by other aviation inventors and designer/builders of aircraft.

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