Lilienthal Glider model


Otto Lilienthal (1848 – 1896), was an engineer from Anklam, Germany. He became famous because he was one of the first humans to glide through the air. He became a pioneer of unpowered human flight by building and flying the world’s first hang gliders. He is considered the most significant pre-Wright Brothers aeronautical experimenter.

Lilienthal built several different types of gliders, and made around 5000 flights between 1891 – 1896. Many of his gliders featured cambered wings, which means they were slightly curved on top to increase lift. Other designs used two wings, one positioned over the other in a typical biplane style. The Wright Brothers were inspired by Lilienthal’s designs, and the famous plane they used for the first powered flight was built in the biplane configuration.

Lilienthal’s gliders were carefully designed to distribute weight as evenly as possible to ensure a stable flight. To control the roll of the gliders, pilots would swing their bodies from left to right, fore and aft, using their own weight to change the direction of the glider. He made his flights from an artificial hill known as “Fliegeberg” (literally meaning “Fly Hill”) he built near his home in Lichterfelde, and from natural hills especially in the Rhinow region.

In 1889, Lilienthal published a significant book Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation. In the summer of 1896, Lilienthal’s aeronautical experiments came to an abrupt and tragic end. On August 9th, while soaring in one of his standard monoplane gliders, a strong gust of wind caused his craft to nose up sharply, stall, and crash from an altitude of 50 feet. Lilienthal suffered a broken spine and died the following day in a Berlin hospital. His last words were to his brother, “Sacrifices must be made.” His total flying time had been five hours.

Wilbur Wright had this to say about Lilienthal: “Of all the men who attacked the flying problem in the 19th century, Otto Lilienthal was easily the most important….It is true that attempts at gliding had been made hundreds of years before him, and that in the nineteenth century, Cayley, Spencer, Wenham, Mouillard, and many others were reported to have made feeble attempts to glide, but their failures were so complete that nothing of value resulted.”