Aviation history: The early endeavours


Egypt - Saqqarahís Bird

Wooden aircraft model

200 B.C.

The earliest-known man-made airborne object was the kite; from about 200 B.C., the ancient China, having harnessed the wind, claimed to have made the first practical use of aircraft in the form of kites, apparently militarily for reconnaissance purposes and calculating distances between forces. In Egypt, aviation pioneering was evidenced by the discovery of a small handmade wooden aircraft in the shape of a bird that had been crafted by artisans in 200 B.C. Technology did not evolve that much over many centuries and the fragmented nature of society has left us with few records of aeronautical endeavours; efforts frequently took the form of launch from a tower in a rudimentary glider or kite-like machine. For centuries, humans have studied the flight of birds and have tried to fly just like them. Wings, made of feathers or light-weight wood, have been attached to arms to test their ability to fly. The results were often disastrous, as the muscles of the human arms are not like birds and cannot move with the strength of a bird. More in-depth experimentation began to discover and define some of the basics of rational aircraft design from the 16th century.


Comoros-Abbas Ibn Firnas

Many made jumps in the first centuries. The earliest possible real experiments start in the 9th century with the Andalusian inventor Abbas Ibn Firnas (c. 809/810-887) who designed a simple glider and jumped off a cliff, gliding in the air and staying in flight for at least 10 minutes.


It has been suggested that Ibn Firnas's attempt at glider flight might have inspired the attempt by the English Benedictine monk Eilmer of Malmesbury, but there is no evidence supporting this hypothesis. The chroniclers donít give us many details on the equipment of Eilmer of Malmesbury who jumped from a tower of his abbey between 1020 and 1040 intending to fly; wings were tied to his hands and feet, but he broke both legs while landing. In 1162, a man in Constantinople, Turkey, fashioned sail-like wings from a fabric gathered into pleats; he jumped from the top of a tower and crashed.


Label (and related cancel) issued for the philatelic meeting held in Firenze, Italy, in April 1947, in commemoration of the 37th anniversary of the first aviation competition held in Firenze in 1910.

The 5-lira stamp on the label shows Leonardo da Vinci.

Somalia - 1977

30th Anniversary of ICAO

Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of a helicopter.


Left: Italy - 28 October 1938 - Leonardo da Vinci.

Right: In 1485, Leonardo da Vinci sketched an ornithopter, a device in which the aviator lies down on a plank and works two large, membranous wings using hand levers, foot pedals, and a system of pulleys. In the background: da Vinciís drawing of a helicopter.

Turks and Caicos Islands - 1985

40th Anniversary of ICAO

Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of a glider wing.

But before man could fly, the scientific principles and notions had to be discovered. The true Renaissance man was the Italian Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). He had left over 100 drawings that illustrated his theories on birds and mechanical flight; the drawings illustrated the wings and tails of birds, ideas for man carrying machines, and devices for the testing of wings. Famous primarily as an artist and sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci was the first to make a serious study of bird flight, leading him to the design of the ornithopter (from Greek ornithos meaning bird and pteron meaning wing) with fixed as well as flapping wings and a hand-held pyramid-type parachute. Leonardo da Vinciís flying machine had a wingspan that exceeded 33 feet, and the frame was to be made of pine covered in raw silk to create a light but sturdy membrane. Leonardo da Vinci never flew, nor is it recorded that any of his flying machines were ever built. It is even very unlikely that they would have been successful, as proved later in the 17th century that it would be impossible to men to fly craftily by their own strength; as da Vinci himself might have realized, while the flying machine may have flown once it was in the air, a man could never have created enough power to get the device off the ground. His thorough knowledge of anatomy led him to believe that he could recreate the structure and movement of birdsí wings in wood and fabric. Leonardo da Vinciís work was of no help to those who followed him, since nothing was known of it for almost 300 years after his death; his manuscripts and drawings were given to a friend who never made them public. At the time they became available in the late 1700s, the science of flight had advanced considerably and his ideas had no influence on future developments.


Turkey - 17 October 1950

Second Middle East Regional Air Navigation Meeting

17th century bird‑flight of Hez‚rfen Ahmed «elebi.

Man constructed wings of feathers and jumped, crashing to the ground and breaking his bone. But eventually success had come; one of the first flights was performed by the Turk Hez‚rfen «elebi (1609-1640). The latter, inspired by the studies of Leonardo da Vinci and with some corrections and balancing adjustments derived from studying the eagle in flight, finally gave shape to his wing apparatus, after nine experimental attempts. According to a story recorded by the historian and chronicler Evliy‚ «elebi in the 17th century, Hez‚rfen Ahmed «elebi glided in 1638 with artificial wings from the top of the 183-foot-tall Galata Tower in Istanbul and managed to fly over the Bosphorus thanks to south-west wind, landing successfully on the Doğancılar Square in ‹skŁdar. As with many others possessing great knowledge, Evliy‚ «elebi gave Ahmed «elebi the title Hez‚rfen, meaning a thousand sciences.


Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in Italy and many others contributed to an understanding of the relationship between resistance (drag) and such factors as the surface area of an object exposed to the stream and the density of a fluid; he has been called the Father of Modern Physics. Pisa International Airport in Italy is named after him (Galileo Galilei Airport). Swiss mathematicians Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782) and Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), and British engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792) are particularly remembered for their applications of mathematics to mechanics and dynamics.


Little aeronautical advancement was recorded in subsequent years as man looked at the birds and wondered how to emulate them.



Togo - 15 October 1985

40th Anniversary of ICAO

At the lower right: Ornithopter of Leonardo da Vinci†(1485).