Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Let’s fly away: pioneers of aviation

The history of aviation spans over two thousand years – from the earliest kites in Ancient China to balloons in eighteenth century France, and from modern supersonic and hypersonic flight, to military drones and reconnaissance. Despite its long history, the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth centuries witnessed an unprecedented interest into powered flight, with several pioneers leading the way. French physicist, chemist, and aeronaut Jacques Alexandre César Charles is credited with inventing the hydrogen balloon (at the same time as the Montgolfier brothers rediscovered the hot-air balloon and began manned flights), whilst little known figures such as Bessie Coleman led the way for black and female aeronauts.

Early aviation was a dangerous past-time, with many pilots meeting untimely ends as a result of their desire to reach further and higher than ever before. This didn’t deter many of the first pioneers however, who strove to advance the human yearning for flight. To celebrate their daring feats, we’ve taken a look at some of these early aviators and their attainments.

Jacques Alexandre César Charles

On 27 August 1783, Jacques Alexandre César Charles (who invented the hydrogen balloon) travelled nearly 48 kilometres in a balloon called the “Charlière.” It was destroyed by terrified townspeople in Gonesse (a commune in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris) upon his landing.

Madeleine-Sophie Blanchard

One of the most famous female balloonists was Madeleine-Sophie Blanchard, who learned to fly from her husband Jean-Pierre, the first man to fly in a balloon across the English Channel. When he died in 1809, she took up the profession with such success that the following year she was named “Aéronaute officiel de l’Empire” (Official aeronaut of the Empire). Unfortunately, on 7 July 1819, she became the first woman to die in a flying accident.

Charles Lindbergh arrived at Croydon Field, Surrey, England, June 1927 by Pacific and Atlantic photos inc. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wilbur and Orville Wright

In 1903 Wilbur and Orville Wright (otherwise known as the Wright Brothers) were the first to sustain powered and controlled flight. They created a propeller to provide airborne thrust, and built (with assistance from a machinist in their bicycle shop) a lightweight engine to power a twin-propeller system. The culmination of their endeavours was 17 December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, when they made four controlled flights ranging from 12 to 59 seconds.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was repeatedly turned down by US aviation schools, but was able to travel to France for training. She obtained her pilot’s license in 1921. Coleman was sadly killed in an air accident in 1926, but inspired countless pilots of all races and genders who followed her.

Charles Lindbergh

In 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, claiming the Orteig Prize offered for the first nonstop flight between the two cities. Lindbergh’s success convinced the public that aviation was more than just an experiment, with Atlantic air passenger numbers subsequently surging by over 300% in one year (from 12,594 in 1927 to 52,934 in 1928).

Frank Whittle

In 1930 the Englishman Frank Whittle patented his idea for an aircraft turbine engine. Not long after he received his patent, Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain, a German aeronautical engineer, conceived and designed his own turbine engine, independent of Whittle’s efforts. Whittle was the first to operate a gas turbine aircraft engine, in 1937, but von Ohain’s design was the first to actually power an airplane.

Amelia Earhart

In May 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first woman and the second person after Charles Lindbergh to fly the Atlantic solo. As well as her aviation adventures, Earhart was also a passionate feminist (lobbying President Herbert Hoover for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1931), who enjoyed socializing with other female aviators. In 1929, she served as founder and president of the “Ninety-Nines”, a pioneering women pilots’ organization.

Featured image credit: aircraft building kit hobby by Ajale. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. […] into a tailspin during its descent, killing de Laroche and the other pilot. A tragic end, but an all-too familiar one for early aviators. In retrospect, it may not be surprising that she was killed during a flight and that is was […]

Comments are closed.