People have always tried to imitate birds. People in legends and fairytales have been able to magically fly, and ancient Chinese, Persians, Romans, Arabs, monks, scholars, warriors and craftsmen have all tried to build flying machines.
Leonardo da Vinci had dreams and plans, but was unable to carry out all of his ideas. The Wright brothers are credited with the first sustained, controlled heavier-than-air flight. Richard Pearse and Jean Batten, both New Zealanders, were made famous by their exploits in early aviation.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci was a great Italian artist and scholar. He discovered that the lift of wings increased with increasing speed. He invented the airscrew in 1490 and built a small helicopter, which really did fly. However, most of his flying ideas were secret drawings that he kept hidden.
In his time, flying machines would have been seen as magic and of the devil – more dangerous for da Vinci than flying. His construction drawings of wings and complete aeroplanes were found 400 years after his death.
The Wright brothers
The first flight of an aeroplane has been attributed to American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, although some historians suggest American Gustave Whitehead had already achieved powered flight just before the Wrights and that New Zealander Richard Pearse had flown a powered flight machine some 9 months before them. However, Pearse did not develop his aircraft to the same degree as the Wright brothers.
The Wrights achieved sustained, controlled heavier-than-air flight in December 1903, and 2 years later, they were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
The Wright brothers gained their skills from their work with printing presses, bicycles, motors and other machinery. Their work with bicycles in particular influenced their belief that an unstable vehicle like a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice.
They contribute their initial interest in flight to a ‘helicopter’ toy bought for them by their father when they were young children. It was made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor and was about 30 cm long. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke and then built one of their own.
Richard Pearse was a New Zealand farmer and inventor from South Canterbury. By 1902, he had built his first petrol engine. He then made a monoplane, similar to a modern microlight. Witness statements suggest that Richard’s first flight was in March 1903. However, this was not recorded and was not sustained flight.
Richard’s first recorded flight (lasting more than several seconds) wasn’t until 1904 – several months after the Wright brothers’ first recorded flight.
There is evidence that Richard Pearse did not achieve controlled flight before the Wright brothers in 1903. See a report from the Timaru Post dated 17 November 1909.
Jean Batten was a New Zealand aviatrix. During the 1930s, she was well known for taking a number of record-breaking solo flights across the world.
She took her first solo flight in 1930 and gained private and commercial licences by 1932. Jean made two unsuccessful attempts to beat English aviatrix Amy Johnson’s time to fly from England to Australia. She succeeded in 1934, in a Gipsy Moth, making a solo trip of 14 days and 22 hours, beating Amy by 4 days. For this and other record-breaking achievements, Jean was awarded the Harmon Trophy three times from 1935 through to 1937.
After her first Australia flight, Jean bought a Percival Gull Six monoplane, G-ADPR, which was named Jean. In 1935, she set a world record flying from England to Brazil in the Gull, for which she was presented the Order of the Southern Cross. In 1936, she set another world record with a solo flight from England to New Zealand.
At her birthplace in Rotorua, local Māori honoured her. She was given a chief’s feather cloak and the title Hine o te Rangi (Daughter of the Skies). Jean was created Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1936, and she was also given the Cross of the French Legion of Honour that year.
In 1938, Jean was the first woman to be awarded the medal of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale – aviation’s highest honour.
Find out more about progression of flight in human history in this timeline.
Nature of science
Science often develops over time. From da Vinci’s ideas and drawings in the 1490s, it was over 400 years before the first flight. Flight ideas and concepts have changed a lot in the last 100 years and are still developing and evolving.