History of the Origin of Manned Flight: More than Just Planes

From the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci to fighter aircraft and beyond, the human dream of flight has come a long way.

Mar 19, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
manned flight history


Since the dawn of man, human beings have stared in wonder at birds soaring through the sky above. While our bodies may not have been able to give us the capability to copy our feathered friends, our imagination could help us take flight.


For thousands of years, flying machines were the stuff of fantasy, but the modern era changed that and let us wonder no more. From tales of Daedalus and Icarus to the sketches of Da Vinci, from hot air balloons to supersonic fighter jets, this is the history of one of humankind’s greatest dreams – flight.


Flight in Ancient Times

jacob peter gowy the fall of icarus
The Fall of Icarus by Jacob Peter Gowy, 1636-1638. Image: Museo del Prado, Madrid


The dream of flight has been with us for millennia. The earliest record of this dream comes in the form of stories told in ancient civilizations. In Greek legends, the hero Bellerophon captures a flying winged horse called Pegasus and rides him into battle against the three-headed Chimera.


In the story of Icarus and Daedalus, Daedalus and his son Icarus escape the clutches of King Minos by flying away on wings made of wax and feathers. Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax on his wings melted, and he plunged to his death.


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Greek legends aren’t the only ones that speak of flight. In ancient Persian legends, King Kaj Kaoos achieved flight by attaching eagles to his throne.


From the ancient days to the birth of modern flight, many people have tempted fate by attaching giant wings to their arms and jumping off heights. The results were often fatal but did not stop others from trying.


Anything that achieved flight in ancient times would have been limited to small models and children’s toys. In ancient China, children were playing with inventions made from bamboo that achieved flight by spinning a rotor in the same fashion that helicopters achieve flight today.


Da Vinci’s Sketches

leonardo da vinci diagram of a proposed flying machine
A diagram for a proposed flying machine by Leonardo da Vinci. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Leonardo da Vinci was not only a famous artist but also an engineer who experimented with many ideas that encapsulated the technological innovations of the Renaissance. He was fascinated with flight and even created a book entitled Codex on the Flight of Birds.


Da Vinci’s thoughts led him to design several theoretical models for achieving flight. The first was an idea that echoes the concept of flight achieved by helicopters. A sketch of his details a model that can be made with a helical construction attached to a spring. When released, the wound-up helix wing spins and lifts the model into the air.


Other sketches detail gliders and contraptions that fly by flapping their wings. The latter is called an ornithopter and is a theory that is still being studied by engineers and scientists to this day.


Hot-air balloons and Zeppelins

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Expérience aërostatique faite Versailles, 19 Sept 1783. Source: Library of Congress


On November 21, 1783, people from all over Paris gathered at the Palace of Versailles and watched in awe as a large balloon made of paper and silk ascended into the sky. This was a first for humanity, as this balloon carried two human passengers, François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, Marquis of Arlanders.


They weren’t surprised, however. The Montgolfier Brothers had demonstrated their flying balloon before. In September, their device took a sheep, a duck, and a rooster into the skies above the royal residence.


Just a few days after the first manned hot-air balloon ride, the first gas-filled balloon took to the skies. Designed by Jacques Alexandre Charles and Louis Nicolas Robert, the balloon was filled with hydrogen, and it became the standard for air travel until the invention of propeller-driven flight.


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Sketch of a flying machine, 1870. Source: Library of Congress via rawpixel.com


Travel in hot-air balloons was slow and unfeasible for any sort of actual value to the masses. Nevertheless, it was a step towards the future of flight. Journeys were made, with the first successful crossing of the English Channel being performed in 1785 by Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries. A previous attempt that year had gone up in flames, killing two men in the process, in what would be a forebear of the sudden end to the evolution of balloons – Zeppelins.


the hindenburg disaster
The Hindenburg goes up in flames. Source: Public Domain via needpix.com


In the early 20th century, before airplanes became commercially available and technologically advanced enough for passenger flight, Zeppelins formed the first commercial airlines. They were slow but luxurious. They were thought to be relatively safe, and few accidents had occurred by 1937 when a single disaster put an end to the entire industry.


On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg had flown across the Atlantic from Germany and attempted to moor in New Jersey when it suddenly and inexplicably burst into flames. Thirty-five of the 97 people on board were killed.


The Wright Brothers & Propeller-Driven Flight

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Orville Wright piloting The Wright Flyer during the first flight. Source: Library of Congress


One of the most important landmarks in the history of flight was the invention of the airplane. The early days of the 19th century are when this development debuted on the world stage and changed our relationship with the sky forever.


After failing their first attempt on December 14, 1903, they tried again three days later and successfully flew the first propeller-driven airplane. The Wright Flyer (Sometimes referred to as the Kitty Hawk Flyer) could hardly have been said to take to the skies, but it lifted off the ground and flew 120 feet. More attempts were made during the day, and on the last attempt, the Wright Brothers’ machine flew 852 feet in 59 seconds.


This monumental occasion changed flight forever and signaled that propeller-driven aircraft would dominate the skies for decades to come.


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A C-130 of the Canadian Air Force. Source: Wikimedia Commons


It didn’t take long for aircraft to advance to the point where they were being used in combat. Rickety biplanes took to the skies in the First World War, and the age of dogfighting began, accompanied by the first use of bombers.


By the Second World War, these aircraft had undergone even more revolutionary progress. Produced en masse, air power became a vital component of the armed forces, and it has been such to this day.


Since then, the technology surrounding propellers has increased, and they have become more efficient and powerful. No longer just a propeller, the turbo-prop system uses, intakes, compressors, reduction gearboxes, turbines, combustors, and propelling nozzles to drive aircraft to much faster speeds than their simple propeller-driven ancestors.



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A Royal Navy Sea King Mk4 in rescue action. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Although Leonardo da Vinci came up with the theoretical underpinnings of helicopter flight, it would be another four and a half centuries before helicopters would take to the skies. Models using human power, rubber bands, steam, and electricity were created through the centuries, but only in the 20th century were the first crewed vehicles created.


In July 1901, a helicopter designed by German inventor Hermann Ganswindt took flight and was the first motor-driven, heavier-than-air vehicle ever to carry a human. The demonstration was recorded, but sadly, the film has been lost.


There was no single inventor of the helicopter, however. All the experiments that followed were improvements on earlier designs until Igor Sikorsky built and flew the first practical helicopter in 1939. Since then, helicopters have proven to be extremely versatile aircraft, as they can hover and fly at very low speeds, which are feats that fixed-wing aircraft are unable to achieve. As such, helicopters have a considerable number of uses in society today. They are used by news media to cover events from the air, as firefighting vehicles, for transport, for search and rescue, and a variety of military functions, including combat.


Jet Aircraft

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Me 262. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The advent of rocketry and jet propulsion was one of the most important milestones in aviation history. Considered by some to have invented the first jet-powered aircraft, Romanian Henri Coandă built his aircraft powered by a ducted fan called the “turbo-propulseur.” There is no record of the aircraft taking flight, despite Coandă’s claims.


Jet engines as we know them today were experimented with in the 1930s by the British, but it would be the Germans who would send the first jet aircraft into the sky. The first jet-powered plane to take flight was the Heinkel He 178, designed by Ernst Heinkel. The Germans would lead the world in aircraft technology during the Second World War, creating the rocket-propelled Me 163 and the first fighter jet, the Me 262. Despite the enormous advantage of jet aircraft, the Germans could not produce them in quantities large enough to make any significant impact on the outcome of the war.


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Front view of a Dassault Rafale. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The decades that followed would see huge leaps in jet-powered flight, including the breaking of the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1 on October 14, 1947.


Jet engines have been powering many different types of aircraft, from learjets to bombers to the modern fighter jets of today, which boast some of the most advanced technologies available. As a result, jet aircraft are some of the most expensive military assets. A single F-22 Raptor, built by Lockheed-Martin, costs in the region of $125 million.


In 1969, the Concorde took its first flight and was introduced for public transport in 1976. These passenger aircraft used turbojet engines, and the fleet was retired in 2003.


The most commonly used engine in commercial airliners today is the turbofan, which uses design features from jets and propellers.



space shuttle launch
A space shuttle launch. Source: pexels.com


Using rockets to propel human flight is a dangerous enterprise. The fuel is highly combustible, and when something goes wrong, the outcome is almost always fatal. The Germans learned this during the Second World War with their Me 163, which claimed the lives of many of its own pilots, especially since the aircraft didn’t have landing gear!


Rockets, however, have been an invaluable resource for space flight. Without them, human beings would not have been able to reach outer orbit and beyond. It is through rocketry that we have taken the first steps in space exploration. While other technologies are being researched, the initial phase of escaping Earth’s gravity is wholly reliant on rockets.


The first rockets were used as weapons. The Chinese fired them at the invading Mongols in 1232. For centuries after, rockets were used as fireworks and as weapons. In the 19th century, the brave choice to use rockets to propel human flight was taken, and the advent of the Space Race made them a vital foundation for humankind’s first steps into the final frontier.


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A Russian Su-57. Source: Anna Zvereva / Wikimedia Commons


For millennia, humankind has dreamed of taking to the skies in flight, and for the vast majority of our history, it seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream. The skies above urban areas are now frequent hosts to our flying machines, from balloons to propeller-driven planes to helicopters and jets and even rockets.


Technological advances in the following decades will undoubtedly add new vehicles to fly above our heads.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.