Being able to fly

Years had to pass before people got their feet off the ground and were able to take to the sky. Wings gave way to balloons, balloons to zeppelins, zeppelins to gliders and gliders finally to airplanes, which gave humans their freedom. The history of aviation is at the same time the history of freedom.

There probably isn’t a child in the world who, on a dark night, has not pointed at a gleaming plane slipping between the stars and asked where it was going. Who has not watched until it disappeared over the horizon and imagined soaring with it into the unknown. Planes gliding through the sky are a fount of imagination for all of us. Freedom, uncertainty, yearning, sometimes even escape, a dream fed each time by the helplessness of being stuck firmly on the ground. Walking may be an imperative, but flying is freedom. Over the centuries humans have observed the birds, have tried to understand their anatomic structure, to comprehend how they cleave the air with their wings. In other words, they have followed closely the only other living creature from which they could derive inspiration. But it would take thousands of years for this longing to fly to become a feasibility, and the first serious steps in this area could only be taken centuries later.

Efforts to transform the dream of flying into reality in Turkey first emerged in the 11th century. A Turkish man of science by the name of El-Gevheri attempted to fly by fastening to his arms wings he had fashioned himself. Lagari Hasan Çelebi was another man who demonstrated the skill of flying during a festival held on the shore near Topkapı Palace in the 17th century. As Evliya Çelebi relates in his Book of Travels, Lagari Hasan Çelebi mounted a seven-nozzle rocket of his own invention filled with some 65 kilos of gun powder paste and was propelled into the sky when the rocket was fired. Spreading the wings he had made himself when the gun powder was consumed, he managed to make a soft landing in the sea in front of the Sinan Pasha Palace. Given that Çelebi rose 250-300 meters in the air and remained there for about 20 seconds, it would not be wrong to regard him as the father of rocket studies.

Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi, a legendary figure who also lived in the 17th century during the reign of Murad IV, is regarded as the first ‘flying man’ in Turkish history. A fearless man who took pleasure in doing science, who nourished his intelligence with the experiments and investigations he carried out courageously and indefatigably, he was dubbed by the common folk ‘hezarfen’  or man of 1001 sciences. Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi arrived at a set of conclusions by studying air currents and the flight of birds and conducted experiments on the Okmeydanı to test the durability of his wings prior to his historic flight. Hurling himself down from the Galata Tower one morning before the eyes of a large crowd gathered along the shore, aided by the wind, he flew across the Bosphorus and landed somewhere near Üsküdar. But Hezarfen was unable to add further successes to his flight.

In the rest of the world as well, there were people who were wracking their brains in pursuit of the dream of flying. The famous painter Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in the 15th century, besides being an artist was also a philosopher, an inventor and a man of science. One of da Vinci’s greatest dreams in science was for humans to glide through the air like birds. His drawings of the winged bicycle that he invented inspired by the flight of seagulls leave the scientific world in awe even today. At the end of the 20th century a glider was manufactured based on da Vinci’s drawings, which have survived to our day, and using materials from his time - further evidence of the famous painter’s enduring genius.

The Montgolfier brothers were the first to succeed in building a craft that could fly and stay in the air for a long time, and their names are always remembered in connection with the early history of modern aviation.

Carrying out experiments together, Etienne Montgolfier, a brilliant, methodical and quiet man, and his dreamy, hot-blooded younger brother Joseph succeeded in developing a balloon that could fly. It was not long before they decided to test in public on 5 June 1783 the giant balloon they had built based on the principle that hot air rises. The balloon rose in the air and, coming to a halt some two thousand meters later, was deflated. Watched by everyone with bated breath, this event generated enormous excitement all over the world. 

Not content with this success, the Montgolfier brothers soon flew a balloon carrying living subjects through the skies of Paris. With its cargo consisting of a sheep, a rooster and a goose, the balloon was launched into the air before a large crowd in front of the Versailles Palace. When it landed not far away ten minutes later, hundreds of people raced to the scene to see what condition the animals were in. Pilatre de Rozier was the first person to reach the spot. When he opened the cage, the goose, rooster and lamb all burst forth in fine fettle, harbingers of a new horizon opening up for mankind.

Convinced that no obstacle remained to man’s exploring the sky, Pilatre thought this experiment needed to be repeated with humans and put himself forward as the first volunteer. The Montgolfier brothers manufactured a balloon to Pilatre’s specifications. Rising into the sky amidst onlookers’ frightened glances on the day of the test, the balloon glided briefly through the skies of Paris before making a soft landing. Emerging from it, Pilatre and his friend d’Arlandes returned to the capital in a festive procession worthy of kings.

But being dragged through the sky by the wind did not mean that human beings could fly to a place in planned fashion. Years would pass, and the electricity-powered motor would have to be superseded by the internal combustion engine, before the balloon could be steered to where a person wanted to go.  The Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont was the person who succeeded in adapting the internal combustion engine to the balloon and thereby building the first dirigible. Circling the Eiffel Tower with his Number 6 zeppelin on 19 October 1901, he earned a prize as well as instantaneous worldwide fame. But more important than anything, Santos-Dumont’s name went down in the history of aviation for the dirigible balloon.

The dirigible balloon was the favored craft of the passion for flying throughout the period when planes had not yet been dreamt of. Garnering the powerful backing of the emperor, the Graf von Zeppelin in Germany toiled undaunted for years until in 1906 he succeeded for the first time in building the giant craft known by his name. The zeppelin was a rigid balloon with a light skeleton made of rings and girders and containing inside it a large number of balloons all filled with hydrogen gas, which enabled it to rise. One-hundred twenty-eight meters in length with two 10.6 kilowatt motors, the first zeppelins could carry 50 passengers on average and fly at 30 kilometers per hour. During its brief spate of rapid development, first of the gliders and following them the transition to the airplane, the history of aviation was a scene of spectacular zeppelin demonstrations. But the zeppelin’s sultanate of the skies was not long-lived and efforts to invent a motor-powered airplane soon superseded this magnificent craft.

The first person to take up flying scientifically not with a balloon but with a motor-powered craft was the Englishman George Cayley. There were without a doubt earlier pioneering efforts that laid the groundwork for Cayley’s success, courageous individuals who challenged the force of gravity. The drawing that is regarded as the first printed document in the history of aviation was produced in 1716 by Emanuel Swedenborg. Supported by progress in the science of mechanics, this drawing was the source of inspiration for Cayley’s studies on the physics of flying at the end of the 18th century. In 1804 Cayley for the first time flew a glider of his own design. Pursuing his studies for many years, Cayley made enormous contributions to the development of aerodynamics.

But such studies were not limited to those of Cayley. Concrete steps were rapidly being taken towards a flying machine. In England, John Stringfellow flew the first steam-powered airplane, unmanned; in France, Jean-Marie Le Bris succeeded in flying a glider known as the Albatross for 200 meters at an elevation of 100 meters; and again in France, Felix du Temple turned his aluminum monoplane into the first plane that could become airborne by its own power, fly through the air and land safely. Meanwhile the Englishman Frank Wenham showed that, contrary to belief up to that time, thin wings were more conducive to lift, thereby facilitating the solution of a difficult problem in the construction of a flying machine.

The period of feverish activity that was gathering pace especially in the 1880’s soon paved the way to further important steps. In Germany, Otto Lilienthal, Percy Pilcher and Octave Chanute constructed a glider in the true sense of the word. On Lilienthal’s death the torch passed to Chanute, who designed a biplane. Equilibrium during flight was Chanute’s special area of expertise and, as a result of his findings in the field, he decided to add a tail to the glider to facilitate steering. In 1897, he strapped this device to his back and, running downhill, managed to fly 109 meters through the air. In 1890, Clement Ader made the first long-distance flight near Paris with a steam-powered craft he called the ‘Eole'. This was soon followed by the design of the first airplane, called the Avion III, whose construction would take five years. Due to its weight however it could only become airborne with difficulty.

Samuel Pierpont Langley meanwhile was known for his successful efforts in the area of aerodynamics and a book, ‘Experiments in Aerodynamics', which he published in 1891. His craft, the Aerodrome No. 5, made the first significant heavier-than-air flight on 6 May 1896 at a speed of 40 kilometers per hour. Another heavier-than-air test flight was realized in England by Percy Pilcher. Pilcher successfully flew several gliders before he was killed in an unfortunate glider accident without having a chance to test his motor-powered aircraft.