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Before the Beginning

Who exactly was the first? Still, more than 100 years after the famous flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, there is an ongoing debate about who actually was the father of modern flight. In parallel to the Wright brothers, there were other people working towards modern day flight. Two prominent stories are detailed here.

Netanel Shlomovitz

The place of the Wright brothers in aviation and world history is set for generations. Two American brothers left behind their mark in the history books in 1903 when they succeeded in operating a “flight machine", as it was called then, and brought us a new concept of flight – automated aviation. It is customary to look at what happened in Kitty Hawk on the 17th of December, 1903, as the day that everything started, but in fact the first flight was the result of years of work and not just by the Wright brothers. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, many attempts were made to build an aircraft that was able to lift off from the ground and stay in the air.

Clement Ader – The first pilot?


Frenchman Clement Ader is not as famous as Orville and Wilbur Wright, but many argue that he is indeed the real father of modern aviation. Ader built an aircraft called the “Eole” that featured a four-blade steam powered propeller and on October 9th 1890, it took off for about 50 meters at 20 centimeters above the ground at the Chateau d’Armainvilliers near Paris. Regretfully, no official witnesses were present during this historic event and therefore even until today it remains unrecognized as a flight prior to that of the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk. In France, the flight did not arouse much public attention at the time. The French Minister of Defense at that time was one of the only people that expressed interest in the strange machine and invested in the project for a short period.


Ader did not stop after his first flight and began to design other aircraft. On October 14th, 1897, in Satory, France (near Paris), the “Avion 3” took off, reaching a distance of about 300 meters in front of an audience of official military scouts. Despite all of his efforts, Ader still did not receive any funding to continue his work. In those days, no one was able to predict the incredible future of the flying machines.


Beyond being an engineer that based his machines on the study of birds, the French inventor also developed and built steam engines to operate the flying machines. Above all, Ader was the first person to predict the future use of aircraft in warfare. “He who rules the air will rule the world,” Ader said.


In his early years, Ader visualized in his mind how the aircraft would operate and from that vision he designed the flying machine. In his book, “The First Phase of Military Flight in France”, published in 1907, Ader described his work space on Jasmine Street in Paris: "a mechanical garage, a special garage to assemble the chassis and wings, a design office, an administrative office, and a large research room with high ceilings that would allow for the design, assembly, and testing of the aircraft. In the yard and garden outside, there were several small buildings, hangers, and a work area for the maintenance staff. A steam engine operated some of the tools. We built a factory that really was unavoidable, considering the many tasks to be completed".


Being a visionary, Ader described in his writings the ways that planes could be used for military purposes. He imagined special military bases tailored for aircraft with special lighting, underground shelters, and flight school. Ader saw the role of the plane as a strategic avenue for exploration and bombing attacks. He even had ideas about anti-aircraft boats and batteries.


Apart from flying machines, Clement Ader is credited with other achievements, including the first phone network in Paris, the first kite that was able to pick up a person, and other patents. Despite the fact that he spent most of his time designing and building aircraft, his other patents made Ader wealthy.

Although he is recognized as the first person to rise above the ground, he is not considered the first to truly fly.



Otto Lilienthal – Founder of Aeronautic Research


"The day in 1891 when Lilienthal glided for 15 meters was a sign to me of the dawn of aviation".


These words, said by the French aviation pioneer Ferdinand Farber, explains the contribution and importance of the German inventor and entrepreneur Otto Lilienthal to the world of aviation. If today Lilienthal succeeded in being an important and special figure, it is only because he never relied on one specific moment of inspiration; rather he constantly and systematically researched. Otto Lilienthal was undoubtedly the first person to bring scientific research methods to the field of aviation.


Even at a young age, the Lilienthal brothers, Otto and Gustav, were fascinated by the flight of birds, especially storks. After a thorough observation of bird movements, the Lilienthal brothers were convinced that human beings could only fly like birds do. After many experiments, in 1871 the Lilienthal brothers demonstrated the ability to glide straight through the air. They then turned to a new mission – building model airplanes equipped with engines and research that would result in the use of curved wings. In 1874 the Lilienthal brothers said that: “the real secret of bird flight is the flexibility of their wings". They continued to research the relationship between elevation and the friction of the air and, as usual, they meticulously documented the results of their research in tables and diagrams.  Only in 1888, after more than 15 years of research, did the Lilienthal brothers publish their results in a book, after a comprehensive review of the data. Although they did not gain proper recognition, their book was the first to describe the process of building and testing gliders.


As his work was being printed, Otto Lilienthal advanced the practical stages of his experiments because “abstract theories are convenient, but don’t allow us to fly". At this point, Gustav Lilienthal left the project because of the inability to combine the research to his work. Otto built his first flying machine from tree branches and cloth. Lilienthal continued to move forward slowly and methodically in his research. “It would be a mistake to jump straight from theory to construction of a flying machine. Only through trial and error or accidental discovery, can we learn the art of flight", wrote Lilienthal in his book.


In 1891, Lilienthal glided for 15 meters. Over the course of five years, he built 18 flying machines and increased his range of gliding to about 250 meters. During these years, Lilienthal designed the first aerodynamic devices that allowed one to control the flying machine. Around 1893, Lilienthal began to call his aircraft Flugzeug.


Lilienthal built an artificial hill to help him with his experiments next to his home in the district of Lichterfeld of Berlin. The hill, called Fliegerberg, is now a memorial site for the German inventor. In the days of his experiments, there was a regular crowd of on-lookers that were interested in seeing history being made. Lilienthal also sold the first plane.


From 1893 onwards, Lilienthal’s experiments focused on improving the mechanics of planes. As Lilienthal’s research continued, he thought that ways of imitating bird flight were the only ways forward. He decided to abandon the idea of combining propellers in his design of his gliders because of the tailwind created by the propellers.  


By confirming his basic assumption regarding bird flight, Lilienthal created a glider with wings that flapped with a special engine. The engine had many problems and only in 1896 did Lilienthal operate it for the first time. Witnesses who attended the first flight attested to the flapping of the wings and ability of the aircraft. Immediately after the flight, Lilienthal began to build a larger version of the same concept, but it would never take off. On August 9th of that year, there was a tragic accident.


Lilienthal fell from his glider to the ground from a height of 15 meters and broke his spine. He died the following day. In his last book, Wilbur Wright said in 1912 that Lilienthal conducted the research with such diligence and intelligence that his work remains the most significant contribution to flight from the 19th century. “There is no doubt we must thank and honor the biggest pioneer of aviation in the world", wrote Wright.

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