The desire to fly, or at least a fascination with the idea of flight, seems to be a universal human trait. Flying is often associated with freedom – birds have the freedom to come and go as they please, effortlessly taking off into the sky on a whim – and perhaps because we do not have wings, in many cultures flying can represent mystery, magic, and power. Ancient stories from around the globe, such as the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus, the legend of King Bladud of Britain, and the African story of Kibaga the warrior, reveal that humans have been dreaming of flying for ages. Centuries of careful thought, creativity and persistence have made it possible for us to actually achieve these dreams and create true modern day stories of humans that have taken to the skies.
While it can be fun to fly a kite or watch a boomerang soar through the air, it takes much more effort and invention to actually lift a human into the sky. The first successful ventures in modern aviation were made by hot air balloon and hydrogen balloon, as described in this brief timeline:
Hot air balloons have a long history, and they are often brilliantly colored and exciting to see, especially en masse. It’s interesting that hot air balloons are a unique sight in modern skies, considering they have been around for longer than airplanes, which have become such a common sight that many people take them for granted today. In the United States, most people associate the history of aviation with the famous American Wright brothers, who launched the first successful assisted takeoff flying machine on December 17, 1903. Similarly, it was a pair of French brothers – Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier – who launched the first successful hot air balloon, thanks to the mischievous petticoat of one of their wives:
While hot air and hydrogen balloons can defy gravity because they are lighter than air, functional aeronautical inventions that are heavier than air are even more impressive.
The French are also accredited with the first successful attempts at the flight of the helicopter:
The airplanes that we are familiar with today have come a long way from the first experimental flight inventions. Humans have never stopped working to achieve the power of flight, which is so seemingly effortless for birds…
Many early flying machines resemble bicycles with wings. Flying in one of these contraptions might be compared to hang-gliding. However, it’s difficult to imagine riding a hang-glider all the way to the North Pole as American aviatrix Ruth Law (1887-1970) had planned to do:
Law enrolled in flight school in 1912 and bought her first aircraft from Orville Wright that same year. Not only did Law set the record flight time from Chicago to New York, she was also the first female authorized to wear a military uniform and she piloted the first official airmail delivery to the Philippines – and she is just one of the many notable women in aviation history.
One of the west coast’s most daring aviators of the 20th century, Silas Christofferson (1890-1916), is pictured here, ready for takeoff in his flying machine:
June of this year will mark the 100th anniversary of Christofferson’s famous Oregon flying stunt: In 1912, he successfully launched his biplane off of the roof of the Multnomah Hotel in Portland, and flew straight to Vancouver, Washington, making the 8 mile journey in 12 minutes.
Other triumphs in aviation can be found in the pages of history as well, paving the way for the flight system that we are familiar with today.
After the first successes, people began to imagine bigger and better planes, as well as multiple uses for them:
The trajectory of aerial inventions hasn’t stopped since. As airplanes and helicopters have become part of our everyday sky-scape, the world has turned its attention to even more far-reaching vistas with the invention of rockets and advances in extraterrestrial travel. Perhaps someday flying through outer space will seem just as ordinary as traveling in an airplane. Next stop – Pluto!