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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Pioneer Profile

    Otto Lilienthal (1848 - 1896)

    Otto-LilienthalOtto Lilienthal, a German civil engineer, was born in 1848 at Anklam, Pomerania. His practical experiments began when, at the age of thirteen, he and his brother Gustav made wings of common materials. These wings consisted of a wooden framework covered with linen, which Otto attached to his arms, and then ran downhill flapping them.

    In 1867, the two brothers began seriously experimenting with wings. These wings the brothers fastened to their backs, moving them with their legs after the fashion of one attempting to swim. Before they had achieved any real success in gliding, the Franco-German war began. Both brothers served in this campaign, resuming their experiments in 1871 at the conclusion of hostilities.

    From 1871 onward, Otto Lilienthal (Gustav's interest in flying was not maintained) made what is probably the most detailed and accurate series of observations about the properties of curved wing surfaces. So far as could be done, Lilienthal tabulated the amount of air resistance offered to a bird's wing, Through this he ascertained that the curve is necessary to flight because it offers far more resistance than a flat surface. In 1889 he published a work on the subject of gliding flight which stands as data for investigators. He began to build his gliders and practice what he had preached, turning from experiment with models to wings that he could use.

    In the summer of 1891, he built his first glider of rods of peeled willow, over which was stretched strong cotton fabric. With this, Otto Lilienthal launched himself in the air from a springboard, making glides which, at first of only a few feet, gradually lengthened. As his experience progressed, he gradually altered his designs. By 1895, Lilienthal had moved from his springboard to a conical artificial hill which he had had thrown up on level ground at Grosse Lichterfelde, near Berlin. This hill was made with earth taken from the excavations incurred in constructing a canal, and had a cave inside in which Lilienthal stored his machines. Lilienthal made over 2,000 gliding flights between 1891 and 1896.

    The fatal flaw of Lilienthal's gliders was lack of control. The crafts were balanced by Lilienthal shifting his weight. By shifting his weight, he had to react to the movements rather than direct them. Despite his lack of control, Lilienthal flew his gliders well and he was dubbed the first flying man. He was well known for his ability to glide for distances up to 1,000 feet.

    It was Lilienthal's lack of control that ended his lifelong fascination with flight. On 8 August 1896, he crashed in a glider from a height of over 50 feet. He died soon after. His careful notes and studies on glider flight would inspire many future pioneers of flight.

    Visit the Germany Profile for more information on German pioneers.