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In perspective: Otto Lilienthal

Otto Lilienthal

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Before 1881, serious attempts to conquer the air were sporadic and more importantly, largely failed. All that changed when Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) launched himself into the air, gliding through the sky – the first person in history to do so. His legacy came before airplanes but this hasn’t stopped him from being known as the ‘flying man’. One of the pioneers of modern aviation, Lilienthal’s work has proved invaluable to aviation designers and engineers ever since.

Unlike many engineers and aircraft designers of his era, Lilienthal was interested in glided flight. Long before many of his contemporaries, he discovered that flight would be achieved with a cambered air foil wing. Throughout his various experiments, he upheld the belief that flight would not be realised suddenly through a single machine. He maintained the philosophy that only through a long process of study and inventing different types of flying machines, would there be long-term aviation success. He showed a remarkable commitment to gliders, which begun at the age of sixteen when he first started experimenting with aircraft with the help of his brother Gustav. Lilienthal trained as an engineer at Postdam in Berlin for two years, already having spent much of his youth building wings and air kits with his brother, all which failed to take flight successfully.

This unsuccessful streak continued throughout 1890 when he created a hang glider. This early design was modelled on bird flight. Despite his best efforts, he wasn’t able to make it respond to different amounts of air pressure and the force of wind. So, neither this model nor the one that followed proved effective.

Lilienthal finally got off the ground in 1893 when he flew his first glider, filing a patent a year later. This is arguable his greatest contribution to the development of heavier-than-air flight. He built his gliders from either bamboo or rattan, then covered the structure with linen. He built many monoplanes, biplanes and wing flapping aircraft during his career and he was eventually able to create gliders that could easily distribute weight to ensure a steady flight. He also invented a small engine that better controlled the motion of the wings, but he never had the chance to fully experiment and expand on the idea. He was tragically killed in a gliding accident in 1896 - his supposed last words were, “Sacrifices must be made.”

During his short career, Lilienthal had taken more than 2,000 glided flights and his work had a great impact on his contemporaries, such as the Wright Brothers. They credited him as a major influence on their own experiments with aircraft. Not only is Lilienthal a founding father of aviation, he was the first human to control an aircraft, using his studies and research of bird flight for his start point.

Today, the world remembers Lilienthal in a number of ways. The Lilienthal Gliding Medal was established in his honour in 1938, which awards those for outstanding contributions to motor gliders. Also, the Otto Lilienthal Museum opened in 1991, in Anklam, Germany which is home to many of his glider designs. Every time humans take flight, in some small part, they are indebted to Lilienthal – the definition of a pioneer.

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