Were the Wright Brothers the First to Fly?

By Scott Hamilton

Senior Expert Emerging Technologies

On June 27, 1903, Aida de Acosta Root Breckinridge, age 19, became the first woman to fly a powered aircraft solo. She was vacationing in France with her mother and saw her first dirigible; she took her first solo flight after only three lessons. This flight took place five months before the Wright brothers’ famous flight on December 17, 1903. Many people make the mistake of believing the Wright brothers were the first to fly a powered aircraft, but as you can see it is clearly not true. The Wright brothers created and flew the first heavier-than-air engine-powered aircraft, but were not the first to achieve powered flight.

The first practical design for an aircraft was drafted by Jesuit Father Francesco Lana de Terzi in 1670. His design was what we would consider today a vacuum airship; though in theory his craft would fly, it is impossible to manufacture, just as it was then. His design consisted of hollow copper spheres that had all the air removed, making them lighter than air. The main reason the design cannot be built is that there is no known material that is both rigid and light enough to produce a vacuum sphere that can float. Regardless of the impossibility of his invention, he was named the Father of Aeronautics.

It was not until 1709 that a Brazilian Portuguese Jesuit priest, Bartolomeu de Gusmao, made the first hot air ballon. He shocked the Portuguese court when it took flight on August 8, 1709, in the courtyard of the Casa da India, in Lisbon, becoming the first documented flight. On December 14, 1782, 121 years to the day of the Wright brothers flight, the Montgolfier brothers performed the first hot air balloon test flight. In 1784, Jean-Pierre Blanchard fitted a hand powered propeller to a balloon making it the first “powered” aircraft. In 1785, he used another craft to cross the English Channel, which was a balloon equipped with flapping wings for propulsion and a birdlike tail for steering. This was the first documented powered aircraft, 119 years before the Wright brothers.

To me the most fascinating piece of aircraft history is the fact that Orville Wright lived to see Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, in the experimental X-1 aircraft over Rogers Dry Lake in Southern California, just a few months before his death on January 30, 1948. In Orville’s lifetime the aircraft went from flying 200 feet just ten feet above the ground to flying 662 miles per hour at 40,000 feet above the ground.

Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org. You can also follow his channel on rumble at https://rumble.com/c/c-1141721.