From Airships to Jetpacks – Five Ways to Fly.
Humans have wanted to fly for as long as birds have teased them, and over time — especially the last century or so — we’ve come up with a lot of interesting proposals for how best to approach the problem. Some were successful; others contained the kernels of success; and some died ignobly at once, usually taking their so-called innovators with them.
MEN WITH WINGS
The story of human flight parallels very closely the story of mechanical power (and industrial advancement in general). This is no accident — even the most brilliant aircraft design can’t be built, tested, or duplicated if there don’t exist sufficiently powerful motors, or sufficiently strong and lightweight materials, to make the physics work.
Naturally, one of the first ways humans attempted to fly was by copying birds, usually by attaching wings to their arms and flapping really hard. Sometimes the men — these foolhardy beings were invariably men — would bypass the “testing” phase and skip right to leaping from a tall cliff or tower, flapping all the way down, only occasionally surviving.
As far back as 1678, a French locksmith named Besnier attempted to use flapping oars (left) to conquer the air, and while I don’t think it actually worked, his skill at PR certainly did: later reports indicate he was able to “raise himself by short stages from one height to another, or skim lightly over a field or river.” Suuuure he was.
But humans are just too heavy and too weak to flap hard enough to fly. In order to be borne aloft by wings like those of birds, the wings would need to be dozens of feet long, pumped far harder than human muscles could manage.
In the 1890s, German Otto Lilienthal (right) made great progress with gliders. He constructed a tower at the top of a hill, and managed to make numerous controlled descents, working out the princples of airfoil (flat-wing) aerodynamics. He was killed in a crash (as these types tended to be) in 1896, but left a legacy that led directly to the development of controlled, powered flight.
Lilienthal had some good ideas — and over the years, even as powered aircraft became common, single-person hang gliders remain a popular way to fly. But true, “flapping” flight did become real until 2010, when an ornithopter named “Snowbird” actually took to the air by flapping its wings:Read More...