As early as 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci devoted himself to the technology of flying and designed various flying devices.
The Englishman Sir George Cayley realized that muscle-powered flying machines based on the flapping motion of birds were leading nowhere and dedicated himself to the construction of gliders. He formulated the main factors of flight – lift, propulsion and steering – which he applied during his attempts at constructing a flying apparatus. One of his assistants finally took off briefly with Cayley’s flying machine in November 1809.
The Berlin engineer Otto Lilienthal undertook the first successful manned flight to cover any distance. In 1891 he took off from a hill with his hand glider and flew a full 25 metres. In the following years, Lilienthal undertook more than 2,000 attempted flights and improved the steering and stability of his flying machines. However, he was unable to carry out his plan of incorporating a petrol engine into a glider; he died in a crash on 9th August 1896.
The trained locksmith, Gustav Weißkopf, who renamed himself Gustave Whitehead after immigrating to the USA, developed a flying machine with wings which could be folded back. On 14th August 1901 (two years before the Wright Brothers) Weißkopf is alleged to have accomplished a successful powered flight. Apparently, he flew a distance of approximately 800 metres with his home-made, engine-powered monoplane “No. 21”.
On 17th December 1903, Orville Wright rose into the air with the biplane “Flyer I”, which had taken off from the ground using engine power, and flew around 36 metres in twelve seconds. Orville and his brother Wilbur undertook a total of four attempted flights on this day – finally remaining in the air for a whole 59 seconds. During these attempts, their Flyer, which was equipped with a 12 horsepower petrol engine as well as a pitch elevator and rudder, flew distances of between 36 and 265 metres. The step towards controlled, powered flight had been taken. In 1904 the brothers were the first to successfully turn a plane and fly in a full circle.
In 1909, the Frenchman Louis Blériot flew over the English Channel. Over 20th and 21st May 1927, the American, Charles Lindbergh, became the first person to fly over the Atlantic alone without stopping. It took him 33½ hours to fly the 5,810 kilometres from New York to Paris. 1939 saw the first jet-powered aircraft, the “Heinkel 178”. In 1947, American Charles Yeager was the first person to break the sound barrier with his rocket aircraft “Bell X-1”. In 1952, the British jet aircraft "De Havilland Comet" heralded the beginning of the jet age in civil aviation. The supersonic jet “Concorde” began regular passenger service in 1976.
Around a hundred years after the first attempts at powered flight, a further chapter in aviation history is now beginning. The "Airbus A380" is expected to enter service in 2006. With 555 seats, the flying giant will be the largest passenger aircraft ever to take off.