Was the first manned flight in 1891 or in 1903?
The question will be rekindled at next month’s Berlin Air Show.
Conventional wisdom has it that the first powered manned flight was by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in December 1903.
The organisers of the ILA Berlin Air Show that will run from June 1 to 4 beg to disagree. They say they will be “marking a special anniversary in the history of aviation” when, 125 years ago in 1891, “Otto Lilienthal became the first man to fly an aircraft”.
For good measure, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) “will be displaying an exact replica of Lilienthal’s glider to the public at the central ILA Plaza. In the restaurant area in Hall 4 the Society for the Preservation of Historic Sites of German Aviation History (GBSL) will be hosting an exhibition of the aviation pioneer’s achievements”, the organisers say.
The catch here is the word “glider”. It’s an aircraft, no doubt, but it can’t take off on its own, unlike the Wright flyer that the brothers christened their machine.
But then, the respected Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft stirred the pot some years ago by claiming that the first manned flight was in August 1901 by Gustave Whitehead, an aviation pioneer from Connecticut.
Still, let’s recognise Lilienthal’s achievements — never mind the “powered” or “unpowered” bit.
“Lilienthal is recognised as the first person to have undertaken manned flight. In 1891 he made several successful flights with a glider that he himself had built. Balloons with which flights had already been made are not classified as aircraft as they are lighter than air.