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What are Flying Machines?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 16, 2024
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A flying machine can be thought of as any device meant to fly. A distinction may be made between mechanically-powered flying machines, human-powered flying machines, lighter-than-air flying machines, and gliders. The idea of a flying machine that could carry a person has likely captivated humanity for many thousands of years, and there are examples of such devices in myth and practice spanning two millennia.

Perhaps the most well-known early account of a flying machine can be seen in the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus. With large wings attached to their arms, the pair were able to soar high above the firmament, flapping and gliding like birds — until, of course, Icarus passed too close to the sun and the wax binding his wings melted. Such myths exist in many different cultures, spanning back more than two-thousand years.

In China, the first record of a human flight was in the middle of the 6th century. This flying machine consisted of a kite — well-known in China at the time — with a space for a passenger. These manned kites are referenced many times in Chinese history, often as a method of spying on enemies during times of war. In the 13th century Marco Polo reported seeing these manned kites during his travels in China.

Ornithopters are flying machines which fly by imitating the flapping wings of a bird. The wings of Daedalus are an early example of an ornithopter. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci also drew up plans for an ornithopter, using a system of pulleys and gears to flap two enormous wings and steer. At the beginning of the 18th century, Emanuel Swedenborg came up with his own ornithopter design, published as Machine to Fly in the Air. Although Swedenborg realized his design would not actually be capable of flight, he felt it was important to begin research into what he felt would eventually be possible — elevating man into the realm of the birds.

By the end of the 19th century there were a number of working ornithopter designs, though none that flew for extended periods of time. Some ran on gunpowder, others on steam, and later the internal combustion engine. Ultimately, the world went with the fixed-wing flying machine over the bird-like ornithopters, and development more-or-less ceased. There remains a devoted group of enthusiasts who continue to work on movable-winged flying machines, and there have even been relatively successful human-powered ornithopters in the past few years.

Gliders are another simple flying machine, which have seen a fair amount of success throughout history. In the 9th century, Abbas Ibn Firnas made the first successful parachute jump, using an artificial wing. Twenty-five years later, he constructed a glider and by all accounts its first flight was largely successful — though he did sustain injuries. At the beginning of the 11th century, an English monk named Eilmer of Malmesbury, replicated the mythical wings of Daedalus and flew more than 65 feet (20 m), before crashing and injuring himself. In the 17th century in Turkey, Ahmet Celebi is said to have made a successful glide using artificial wings, soaring over the Bosphorus (or Istanbul Strait).

Ahmnet Celebi's brother, Lagari Hasan Celebi, is said to have created a different sort of flying machine. Hasan is often credited with creating the first artificially powered flying machine, using a top filled with gunpowder to propel himself into the air — essentially strapping himself to a rocket and launching it. With wings attached to his arms, he then is said to have glided in for a softer landing.

Lighter-than-air flying machines began appearing near the end of the 18th century. The first successful hot air balloon trip occurred in 1783, and many soon followed. Building on the success of the hot air balloon, dirigibles emerged as the dominant form of flying machine by the mid 1850s. Dirigibles remained widely popular until the Hindenburg accident and other notable disasters, at which point they were phased out in favor of fixed-wing aircraft.

In the modern world, flying machines include fixed-wing aircraft, such as the commercial airplanes used as the most popular form of long-distance transportation, rotary-wing aircraft, such as helicopters, and rockets such as the space shuttle. Hot air balloons also remain popular in limited contexts, as do large gliders, personal hang gliders, and blimps.

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