Otto Lilienthal's Gliders And Death - 1896
The History: As early as 1894, the Wrights had read about Otto Lilienthal's experiments in Germany. Lilienthal constructed a variety of gliders and conducted flights from the top of a small hill. He made over 2000 flights during his lifetime and is considered to be the very first "aviator".
To keep the glider level and balanced the pilot moved his legs and torso to shift his weight. During one of these flights, a gust of wind blew his glider out of balance. Lilienthal swung his legs to shift his weight, but unfortunately, the glider crashed breaking Lilienthal's spine. He died the next day on August 10, 1896.
Reading of Lilienthal's death peaked the Wrights' interest in his gliding work again and the Wrights begin to look for books on flight.
Otto Lilienthal was born in 1848 in Germany. He studied engineering and later was responsible for the production of small steam engines at a factory located near Berlin. Like the Wrights, Lilienthal and his younger brother Gustav, also became interested in flight as youngsters. They built pairs of bird-like shaped wings and tried to fly by strapping the wings on to their bodies and flapping. These early attempts were not successful and did not fly.
Although the Wrights did build and fly the first powered aircraft, it is important to remember that many other individuals made important scientific or engineering contributions which enabled (allowed) the Wrights to succeed.
Humans endeavored to fly for thousands of years before the Wright brothers were born. Many serious, respected scientists and engineers, as well as talented investigators like the Wrights, contributed to the development of the first powered aircraft through their own achievements as well as their failures.
For example, one of Lilienthal's most important contributions to flight was a series of tests he conducted on the ground! Different wing shapes where tested to determine which had the most favorable flight characteristics. Some shapes were flat and straight while others curved (more like a bird's wing). Lilienthal found that curved shapes performed better. The Wrights knew about Lilienthal's work and could use this information in their own designs.
Many fundamental science principles govern flight. To fly, an airplane has to rise into the air, propel itself, fly straight and level, maintain a certain altitude, negotiate wind and other environmental conditions, turn and navigate. An aircraft has a variety of mechanical devices and systems designed to utilize these basic science principles and perform these functions. The functions an airplane must perform to fly are commonly grouped by system name such as: propulsion, controls, stability, or navigation.
To maintain control of the glider, Lilienthal's had to shift his weight. As the Wrights began their own systemic investigation into flying, they learned that other experimenters including Lilienthal had not concentrated on balance and control. For their own safety and success and to avoid Lilienthal's fate, the Wrights believed they should first concentrate their efforts on control and balance.