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Lesson 03 – A Short History of Flight

Read About a Short History of Flight


Read the vocabulary terms to understand the reading better.

Hot-Air Balloons

Hot-air balloons are large balloons that are filled with heated air to make them rise and float, and with a large basket underneath for people to ride in.


Drift means to move along slowly, carried by the movement of air, wind, or water.


Lift picks up something and/or makes it rise.

Bernoulli’s Principle

Bernoulli’s principle is a principle or rule made by Daniel Bernoulli stating that slower-moving fluids create greater pressure than faster-moving fluids (this includes air).


Gliders are aircraft with long wings that have no engine and float like a bird on rising warm air currents.


An engineer is a person whose job it is to design or build useful things such as machines, engines, roads, bridges, or railways.

A Short History of Flight

As far back as the year 1500, the inventor and painter Leonardo da Vinci drew airplane-like machines. He never built any of them, but he inspired other inventors.

Hot-Air Balloons

Since about 250, hot-air balloons were used as military signals in China. In 1783, brothers Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier had the idea of sending people up in a hot-air balloon. No one knew if there was air that far above Earth’s surface. And, if there was air, was that air safe to breathe? Onlookers were amazed and shocked when it worked.

Montgolfier brothers illustration, 1784
Hot-air balloon by Montgolfier brothers, 1783

Bernoulli Principle

The hot-air balloon was a step forward in air travel, but the balloon could only drift in the wind. Inventors wanted a machine they could control. Serious inventors knew of the work of Daniel Bernoulli. In 1738, Bernoulli realized that the way air flows past a curved wing pushes or lifts it into the air. Using Bernoulli’s principle, British experimenter Sir George Cayley designed several gliders. A glider depends on wind to move and stay aloft. A glider has no engine, but it can be steered. In 1849, Cayley launched a glider that carried a 10-year-old boy a short distance. That was the first time a glider had flown with a person onboard. Cayley’s work inspired Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer. By 1896, he had made about 2000 glider flights. Lilienthal added an engine to power his glider, but it crashed, killing him.

A replica of Sir George Caley’s glider, courtesy of Alan Wilson

Orville and Wilbur Wright

This tragedy frightened off many aircraft builders, but not American inventors Orville and Wilbur Wright. They were determined to add power to their gliders. In 1903, the Wright brothers became the first people to fly in a controlled and powered aircraft.

Better fighter aircraft were needed during World War II. In the early 1940s, airplanes became jet-propelled. Today they are used to fly people for business or pleasure. They are also used to deliver goods around the world.

Orville and Wilbur Wright
Wilbur Wright in flight from Governor’s Island, 1909
Wright brothers’ third test glider being launched, 1902

Now Show What You Know!

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