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Flight Facts

Girl flyingHumans have dreamed about flying for thousands of years. They probably watched birds, insects, bats, or leaves and imagined and wondered what it must be like.

However, it took many years for humans to grow and understand some properties of the earth and air and be able to measure accurately, develop theories, and predict outcomes. Only then could people build the wings and engines needed to fly.

A History

Around 350 BC the Chinese began to make kites from bamboo frames covered in paper and silk. Many of today's kites use a similar design. A kite is a form of a glider as it does not technically fly, but instead sails on air currents.

In 1492 an Italian scientist, artist, and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci, observed the flight of birds and analyzed their anatomy. He designed parachutes, helicopters and flying machines that looked quite like the early attempts at flying in the 1900's. Da Vinci glider

In 1670 Giovanni Borelli attempted to use artificial wings for flying and proved that human muscles aren't strong enough to hold the big wings needed to lift a human off the ground.

Hot air balloonThen, In 1783 two French brothers, Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, who owned a paper mill, inflated a balloon with hot air. They had observed that hot air rises and decided to see if they could create a craft that could use this newly discovered science. The unmanned balloon rose into the sky. This led to additional attempts at flight.

On September 19, 1783 three passengers along with a sheep, a rooster and a duck were successfully launched into the air in a hot air balloon. The Montgolfier brothers continued to play with balloon flight and others soon were experimenting in this type of craft.

Wright BrothersMany additional attempts in flight were made over the next 120 years - mostly glider crafts. However, it was Wilbur and Orville Wright who, in 1903, made the first flight "...in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started."

You can read more from the writings of Orville at First Flight from the Franklin Institute.

Fly the Wright Brothers' flyer with this First Flight simulation.

In the 1920s and 1930s a craft known as a dirigible was a common mode of transportation for intercontinental flight. A dirigible was a frame covered with fabric and filled with a gas. The craft also had the ability to be steered which made it different from the hot air balloon. Blimps and zeppelins are versions of this type of craft. Learn more about dirigibles from the Centennial of Flight Web site.

The most famous of these is probably the Hindenburg which during its landing on May 6, 1937, burst into flames and crashed killing a number of passengers and crew. Another famous dirigible known to many is the Goodyear Blimp which many people have seen hovering above sporting events.

Airline travel is very common now-a-days and there are thousands of flights worldwide every day. Commercial planes, private aircraft and space travel would not be possible without the pioneers of flight

Glider Flight

Flying squirrelGliding Flight is accomplished with little or no movement or flapping of wings. Leaves, maple seeds, or dandelion seeds seem to float with the wind but they aren't true flyers.

Man has built gliders which have no engines but are towed into the air by an airplane. It can take hours for a glider to return to earth. A number of animals use this method of movement but do not actually "fly". Flying squirrels, flying fish and some snakes have skin that they can stretch out and use to glide through the air.

True Flight

HawkTrue Flight is accomplished only by birds, insects, and bats.. Wings allow these creatures to push on the air to give them lift, thus allowing them to be airborne. Other structures in their body such as their muscles and bones provide additional support for flight.

Some birds, in addition to flying, will actually seek after warm updrafts of air known as thermals which travel up from the ground. The birds will glide on these thermals; sailing around in circles or hovering in one place.



What is Flight?

There are 4 forces which are in action that affect flight; weight, lift, drag, and thrust. All four had to be understood before anyone could design an aircraft. These processes are used in flight.


Aeronautics is the science of flight.

Down arrowWeight is caused by the pull of Earth's gravity on our body. A flying object must overcome this force.

Air foilLift is the upward force that works against gravity and weight. How is lift created? Click the wing to find out!

PropellorThrust is the forward push made when an engine turns a propeller. The propeller is shaped to push the air backwards. This results in a reaction force (thrust) on the propeller that moves the aircraft forwards.

Superhero in flight


Drag, or air resistance, slows down the forward movement of an aircraft. It is caused by friction between the moving object and the air around it.

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