The History of Flight: 6th Graders learn about Aerodynamics

Aerodynamics is the study of “how air flows around a plane”,  but where did we get the idea that people could fly?

The following information was obtained from

Picture of Flying Seagull

How Did We Learn to Fly Like the Birds?

Myths and Legends of Flight

Greek Legend – Pegasus
Bellerophon the Valiant, son of the King of Corinth, captured Pegasus, a winged horse. Pegasus took him to a battle with the triple headed monster, Chimera.

Icarus and Daedalus – An Ancient Greek Legend
Daedalus was an engineer who was imprisoned by King Minos. With his son, Icarus, he made wings of wax and feathers. Daedalus flew successfully from Crete to Naples, but Icarus, tired to fly too high and flew too near to the sun. The wings of wax melted and Icarus fell to his death in the ocean.

King Kaj Kaoos of Persia
King Kaj Kaoos attached eagles to his throne and flew around his kingdom.

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great harnessed four mythical wings animals, called Griffins, to a basket and flew around his realm.

Early Efforts of Flight

Around 400 BC – China
The discovery of the kite that could fly in the air by the Chinese started humans thinking about flying. Kites were used by the Chinese in religious ceremonies. They built many colorful kites for fun, also. More sophisticated kites were used to test weather conditions. Kites have been important to the invention of flight as they were the forerunner to balloons and gliders.

Humans try to fly like birds

For many centuries, humans have tried to fly just like the birds. Wings made of feathers or light weight wood have been attached to arms to test their ability to fly. The results were often disastrous as the muscles of the human arms are not like a birds and can not move with the strength of a bird.

Hero and the Aeolipile

Drawing of Aeolipile Created by Hero


The ancient Greek engineer, Hero of Alexandria, worked with air pressure and steam to create sources of power. One experiment that he developed was the aeolipile which used jets of steam to create rotary motion.

Hero mounted a sphere on top of a water kettle. A fire below the kettle turned the water into steam, and the gas traveled through pipes to the sphere. Two L-shaped tubes on opposite sides of the sphere allowed the gas to escape, which gave a thrust to the sphere that caused it to rotate.

1485 Leonardo da Vinci – The Ornithopter

Leonardo da Vinci's Ornithopter

Leonardo da Vinci’s Ornithopter

Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480’s. He had over 100 drawings that illustrated his theories on flight.

The Ornithopter flying machine was never actually created. It was a design that Leonardo da Vinci created to show how man could fly. The modern day helicopter is based on this concept.

1783 – Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier- the First Hot Air Balloon

Colorful Picture of One of Montgolfier's Hot Ari Balloons

One of The Montgolfier’s Balloons

The brothers, Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, were inventors of the first hot air balloon. They used the smoke from a fire to blow hot air into a silk bag. The silk bag was attached to a basket. The hot air then rose and allowed the balloon to be lighter-than-air.

In 1783, the first passengers in the colorful balloon were a sheep, rooster and duck. It climbed to a height of about 6,000 feet and traveled more than 1 mile.

After this first success, the brothers began to send men up in balloons. The first manned flight was on November 21, 1783, the passengers were Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent.

1799 – 1850’s – George Cayley

A picture of a Glider by George Cayley

One Version of a Glider

George Cayley worked to discover a way that man could fly. He designed many different versions of gliders that used the movements of the body to control. A young boy, whose name is not known, was the first to fly one of his gliders.

Over 50 years he made improvements to the gliders. He changed the shape of the wings so that the air would flow over the wings correctly. He designed a tail for the gliders to help with the stability. He tried a biplane design to add strength to the glider. He also recognized that there would be a need for power if the flight was to be in the air for a long time.

Drawing of a Cayley glider with a tail

One of the many drawings of gliders

Cayley wrote On Ariel Navigation which shows that a fixed-wing aircraft with a power system for propulsion and a tail to assist in the control of the airplane would be the best way to allow man to fly.

19th And 20th Century Efforts

1891 Otto Lilienthal

One of the many designs for a Glider by Otto Lilienthal

One of Lilienthal’s Gliders

German engineer, Otto Lilienthal, studied aerodynamics and worked to design a glider that would fly. He was the first person to design a glider that could fly a person and was able to fly long distances.

He was fascinated by the idea of flight. Based on his studies of birds and how they fly, he wrote a book on aerodynamics that was published in 1889 and this text was used by the Wright Brothers as the basis for their designs.

After more than 2500 flights, he was killed when he lost control because of a sudden strong wind and crashed into the ground.

Picture of Lilienthal's glider in flight.

Lilienthal’s Glider in Flight

1891 Samuel P. Langley

A drawing of the Langley Aerodrome

Langley’s Aerodrome


Samuel Langley was an astronomer, who realized that power was needed to help man fly. He built a model of a plane, which he called an aerodrome, that included a steam-powered engine. In 1891, his model flew for 3/4s of a mile before running out of fuel.

Langley received a $50,000 grant to build a full sized aerodrome. It was too heavy to fly and it crashed. He was very disappointed. He gave up trying to fly. His major contributions to flight involved attempts at adding a power plant to a glider. He was also well known as the director of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC


Picture of Langley Aerodrome.

Model of Langley Aerodrome

1894 Octave Chanute

Octave Chanute published Progress in Flying Machines in 1894. It gathered and analyzed all the technical knowledge that he could find about aviation accomplishments. It included all of the world’s aviation pioneers. The Wright Brothers used this book as a basis for much of their experiments. Chanute was also in contact with the Wright Brothers and often commented on their technical progress.

Orville and Wilbur Wright and the First Airplane

Orville and Wilbur Wright were very deliberate in their quest for flight. First, they read about all the early developments of flight. They decided to make “a small contribution” to the study of flight control by twisting their wings in flight. Then they began to test their ideas with a kite. They learned about how the wind would help with the flight and how it could affect the surfaces once up in the air.

A model of one of the Gliders designed by the Wright Brothers

A Drawing of a Wright Brothers Glider (1900)

The next step was to test the shapes of gliders much like George Cayley did when he was testing the many different shapes that would fly. They spent three years testing and learning about how gliders could be controlled at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


Picture of the Wright Brothers first engine.

Picture of the actual 12 horsepower engine used in flight

They designed and used a wind tunnel to test the shapes of the wings and the tails of the gliders. In 1902, with a perfected glider shape, they turned their attention to how to create a propulsion system that would create the thrust needed to fly.

The early engine that they designed generated almost 12 horsepower. That’s the same power as two hand-propelled lawn mower engines!


A drawing of the Wright Brother's Flyer

The Wright Brother’s Flyer


The “Flyer” lifted from level ground to the north of Big Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, at 10:35 a.m., on December 17, 1903. Orville piloted the plane which weighed about six hundred pounds.



Picture of the first flight at Kitty Hawk

Actual Flight of The Flyer at Kitty Hawk


The first heavier-than-air flight traveled one hundred twenty feet in twelve seconds. The two brothers took turns flying that day with the fourth and last flight covering 850 feet in 59 seconds. But the Flyer was unstable and very hard to control.

The brothers returned to Dayton, Ohio, where they worked for two more years perfecting their design. Finally, on October 5, 1905, Wilbur piloted the Flyer III for 39 minutes and about 24 miles of circles around Huffman Prairie. He flew the first practical airplane until it ran out of gas.

Humankind was now able to fly! During the next century, many new airplanes and engines were developed to help transport people, luggage, cargo, military personnel and weapons. The 20th century’s advances were all based on this first flights by the American Brothers from Ohio.



Airplane Timeline:


Efforts to tackle the engineering problems associated with powered flight began well before the Wright brothers’ famous trials at Kitty Hawk. In 1804 an English baronet, Sir George Cayley, launched modern aeronautical engineering by studying the behavior of solid surfaces in a fluid stream and flying the first successful winged aircraft of which we have any detailed record. And of course Otto Lilienthal’s aerodynamic tests in the closing years of the 19th century influenced a generation of aeronautical experimenters. In the 20th century, advances in aeronautical engineering soon had us soaring in safety and comfort across all the continents and oceans.


1901 First successful flying model propelled by an internal combustion engine

Samuel Pierpont Langley builds a gasoline-powered version of his tandem-winged “Aerodromes.” the first successful flying model to be propelled by an internal combustion engine.  As early as 1896 he launches steam-propelled models with wingspans of up to 15 feet on flights of more than half a mile.
1903 First sustained flight with a powered, controlled airplane

Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, complete the first four sustained flights with a powered, controlled airplane at Kill Devil Hills, 4 miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. On their best flight of the day, Wilbur covers 852 feet over the ground in 59 seconds. In 1905 they introduce the Flyer, the world’s first practical airplane.
1904 Concept of a fixed “boundary layer” described in paper by Ludwig Prandtl

German professor Ludwig Prandtl presents one of the most important papers in the history of aerodynamics, an eight-page document describing the concept of a fixed “boundary layer,” the molecular layer of air on the surface of an aircraft wing. Over the next 20 years Prandtl and his graduate students pioneer theoretical aerodynamics.
1910 First take off from a ship

Eugene Ely pilots a Curtiss biplane on the first flight to take off from a ship. In November he departs from the deck of a cruiser anchored in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and lands onshore. In January 1911 he takes off from shore and lands on a ship anchored off the coast of California. Hooks attached to the plane’s landing gear, a primitive version of the system of arresting gear and safety barriers used on modern aircraft carriers.
1914 Automatic gyrostabilizer leads to first automatic pilot

Lawrence Sperry demonstrates an automatic gyrostabilizer at Lake Keuka, Hammondsport, New York.  A gyroscope linked to sensors keeps the craft level and traveling in a straight line without aid from the human pilot. Two years later Sperry and his inventor father, Elmer, add a steering gyroscope to the stabilizer gyro and demonstrate the first “automatic pilot.”
1914-1918 Dramatic improvements in structures and control and propulsion systems

During World War I, the requirements of higher speed, higher altitude, and greater maneuverability drive dramatic improvements in aerodynamics, structures, and control and propulsion system design.
1915 National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

Congress charters the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a federal agency to spearhead advanced aeronautical research in the United States.
1917 The Junkers J4, an all-metal airplane, introduced

Hugo Junkers, a German professor of mechanics introduces the Junkers J4, an all-metal airplane built largely of a relatively lightweight aluminum alloy called duralumin.
1918 Airmail service inaugurated

The U. S. Postal Service inaugurates airmail service from Polo Grounds in Washington, D.C., on May 15. Two years later, on February 22, 1920, the first transcontinental airmail service arrives in New York from San Francisco in 33 hours and 20 minutes, nearly 3 days faster than mail delivery by train.
1919 U.S. Navy aviators make the first airplane crossing of the North Atlantic

U.S. Navy aviators in Curtiss NC-4 flying boats, led Lt. Cdr. Albert C. Read, make the first airplane crossing of the North Atlantic, flying from Newfoundland to London with stops in the Azores and Lisbon. A few months later British Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Albert Brown make the first nonstop transatlantic flight, from Newfoundland to Ireland.
1919 Passenger service across the English Channel introduced

Britain and France introduce passenger service across the English Channel, flying initially between London and Paris. 1919 the first nonstop transatlantic flight, from Newfoundland to Ireland.
1925-1926 Introduction of lightweight, air-cooled radial engines

The introduction of a new generation of lightweight, air-cooled radial engines revolutionizes aeronautics, making bigger, faster planes possible.
1927 First nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic

On May 21, Charles Lindbergh completes the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, traveling 3,600 miles from New York to Paris in a Ryan monoplane named the Spirit of St. Louis. On June 29, Albert Hegenberger and Lester Maitland complete the first flight from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii. At 2,400 miles it is the longest open-sea flight to date.
1928 First electromechanical flight simulator

Edwin A. Link introduces the Link Trainer, the first electromechanical flight simulator. Mounted on a base that allows the cockpit to pitch, roll, and yaw, these ground-based pilot trainers have closed hoods that force a pilot to rely on instruments. The flight simulator is used for virtually all U.S. pilot training during WWII.
1933 Douglas introduces the 12-passenger twinengine DC-1

In that summer Douglas introduces the 12-passenger twin-engine DC-1, designed by aeronautical engineer Arthur Raymond for a contract with TWA. A key requirement is that the plane can take off, fully loaded, if one engine goes out. In September the DC-1 joins the TWA fleet, followed 2 years later by the DC-3, the first passenger airliner capable of making a profit for its operator without a postal subsidy. The DC-3’s range of nearly 1,500 miles is more than double that of the Boeing 247. As the C-47 it becomes the workhorse of WWII.
1933 First modern commercial airliner

In February, Boeing introduces the 247, a twin-engine 10-passenger monoplane that is the first modern commercial airliner. With variable-pitch propellers, it has an economical cruising speed and excellent takeoff. Retractable landing gear reduces drag during flight.
1935 First practical radar

British scientist Sir Robert Watson-Watt patents the first practical radar (for radio detection and ranging) system for meteorological applications. During World War II radar is successfully used in Great Britain to detect incoming aircraft and provide information to intercept bombers.
1935 First transpacific mail service

Pan American inaugurates the first transpacific mail service, between San Francisco and Manila, on November 22, and the first transpacific passenger service in October the following year. Four years later, in 1939, Pan Am and Britain’s Imperial Airways begin scheduled transatlantic passenger service.
1937 Jet engines designed

Jet engines designed independently by Britain’s Frank Whittle and Germany’s Hans von Ohain make their first test runs. (Seven years earlier, Whittle, a young Royal Air Force officer, filed a patent for a gas turbine engine to power an aircraft, but the Royal Air Ministry was not interested in developing the idea at the time. Meanwhile, German doctoral student Von Ohain was developing his own design.) Two years later, on August 27, the first jet aircraft, the Heinkel HE 178, takes off, powered by von Ohain’s HE S-3 engine.
1939 First practical singlerotor helicopters

Russian emigre Igor Sikorsky develops the VS-300 helicopter for the U.S. Army, one of the first practical singlerotor helicopters.
1939-1945 World War II spurs innovation

A world war again spurs innovation. The British develop airplane-detecting radar just in time for the Battle of Britain. At the same time the Germans develop radiowave navigation techniques. The both sides develop airborne radar, useful for attacking aircraft at night. German engineers produce the first practical jet fighter, the twin-engine ME 262, which flies at 540 miles per hour, and the Boeing Company modifies its B-17 into the high-altitude Flying Fortress. Later it makes the 141-foot-wingspan long-range B-29 Superfortress. In Britain the Instrument Landing System (ILS) for landing in bad weather is put into use in 1944.
1947 Sound barrior broken

U.S. Air Force pilot Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager becomes the fastest man alive when he pilots the Bell X-1 faster than sound for the first time on October 14 over the town of Victorville, California.
1949 First jet-powered commercial aircraft

The prototype De Havilland Comet makes its first flight on July 27. Three years later the Comet starts regular passenger service as the first jet-powered commercial aircraft, flying between London and South Africa.
1950s B-52 bomber

Boeing makes the B-52 bomber. It has eight turbojet engines, intercontinental range, and a capacity of 500,000 pounds.
1952 Discovery of the area rule of aircraft design

Richard Whitcomb, an engineer at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, discovers and experimentally verifies an aircraft design concept known as the area rule. A revolutionary method of designing aircraft to reduce drag and increase speed without additional power, the area rule is incorporated into the development of almost every American supersonic aircraft. He later invents winglets, which increase the lift-to-drag ratio of transport airplanes and other vehicles.
1963 First small jet aircraft to enter mass production

The prototype Learjet 23 makes its first flight on October 7. Powered by two GE CJ610 turbojet engines, it is 43 feet long, with a wingspan of 35.5 feet, and can carry seven passengers (including two pilots) in a fully pressurized cabin. It becomes the first small jet aircraft to enter mass production, with more than 100 sold by the end of 1965.
1969 Boeing 747

Boeing conducts the first flight of a wide-body, turbofan-powered commercial airliner, the 747, one of the most successful aircraft ever produced.
1976 Concorde SST introduced into commercial airline service

The Concorde SST is introduced into commercial airline service by both Great Britain and France on January 21. It carries a hundred passengers at 55,000 feet and twice the speed of sound, making the London to New York run in 3.5 hours—half the time of subsonic carriers. But the cost per passenger-mile is high, ensuring that flights remain the privilege of the wealthy. After a Concorde accident kills everyone on board in July 2000, the planes are grounded for more than a year. Flights resume in November 2001, but with passenger revenue falling and maintenance costs rising, British Airways and Air France announce they will decommission the Concorde in October 2003.
1986 Voyager circumnavigates the globe (26,000 miles) nonstop in 9 days

Using a carbon-composite material, aircraft designer Burt Rutan crafts Voyager for flying around the world nonstop on a single load of fuel. Voyager has two centerline engines, one fore and one aft, and weighs less than 2,000 pounds (fuel for the flight adds another 5,000 pounds). It is piloted by Jeana Yeager (no relation to test pilot Chuck Yeager) and Burt’s brother Dick Rutan, who circumnavigate the globe (26,000 miles) nonstop in 9 days.
1990s B-2 bomber developed

Northrop Grumman develops the B-2 bomber, with a “flying wing” design. Made of composite materials rather than metal, it cannot be detected by conventional radar. At about the same time, Lockheed designs the F-117 stealth fighter, also difficult to detect by radar.
1995 First aircraft produced through computer-aided design and engineering

Boeing debuts the twin-engine 777, the biggest two-engine jet ever to fly and the first aircraft produced through computer-aided design and engineering. Only a nose mockup was actually built before the vehicle was assembled—and the assembly was only 0.03 mm out of alignment when a wing was attached.
1996-1998 Joint research program to develop second-generation supersonic airliner

NASA teams with American and Russian aerospace industries in a joint research program to develop a second-generation supersonic airliner for the 21st century. The centerpiece is the Tu-144LL, a first-generation Russian supersonic jetliner modified into a flying laboratory. It conducts supersonic research comparing flight data with results from wind tunnels and computer modeling.



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