Aeronautical pioneers, yesterday and today

Being a pioneer is not easy. One has to have reasonable knowledge about the area one wants to innovate in, a fair amount of imagination, inventiveness and self-criticism, a certain amount of resources and, above all, a more than acceptable amount of daring. All of this could be downplayed today in an industrialised world under the auspices of large companies. However, some time ago, one could pay with one’s own life for being an aeronautical pioneer. Especially because nobody trusted you enough to try out a flying machine in your place which had never before been used.

The romanticism of those who wished to fly when everybody around them said they were mad has been lost. Nonetheless, not an ounce has been lost of the guts.

Some scholars in ancient Greece, like Archytas of Tarentum, had already proposed simple flying machines. Kites were invented and used in China at that time. However, there is no evidence of anyone being brave enough to experiment by getting into one of them.

The first person who can historically be considered as a pioneer in aeronautics was Abbas Ibn Firnas. This passionate Andalusian from the 9th century was the first person who designed, built and tried out flying machines.

The first attempt took place in 852. He jumped into the void from the tower of the Cordoba Mosque, using a canvas cloth as an innovative parachute. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before. Or at least nobody had recounted it until that time. It resulted in a relatively rapid descent involving a rough landing and several broken bones, but with a firm conviction that it could work.

As a matter of fact, he designed a wooden glider in 875, with which he launched himself from some hills located near Cordoba, Spain. Despite a difficult landing, he not only survived but also became the first man to fly on a heavier-than-air machine.

Around 200 years later, a British Benedictine monk called Eilmer of Malmesbury also had enough guts to launch himself from his abbey’s tower on a machine inspired by the myth of Icarus. The result was disastrous, though he did manage to fly for a few seconds.

Many years later in the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci was the first great theoretician of aeronautics. He designed on paper and argued for different solutions that could make men fly. Most of his inventions could not have flown, but the detailed studies he did were the most thorough carried out at the dawn of aeronautics.

The Montgolfier brothers – Joseph-Michel and Jacques Étienne – were also pioneers. In the 18th century, they developed one of the inventions that would have the greatest repercussion on the subsequent development of aeronautics: the hot air balloon. To be honest though, it has to be said that they were not precisely the first to get into the hot air balloon to test it out. Several farm animals did so first and finally so did two intrepid aristocrats who were well connected to the French court (Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis of d’Arlandes).

From then on, hundreds of pioneers proposed innovations and inventions that contributed to the progress of flying, committing their assets and putting their lives at risk in many cases. These include: Cayley, Le Bris, Wenham, Lilienthal, Ader, Langley, Pilcher, Whitehead, Zeppelin, Torres Quevedo, Santos Dumont, Wright, Forlanini, de la Cierva, Comu, Fabre, Voisin, etc., an interminable list de names that would forever be emblazoned in the annals of aeronautics.

Today, in a hugely industrialised environment characterised by intense business competition, it is highly unlikely that the world of aeronautics will once again have pioneers like them. They simply took off without knowing what the outcome of their daring would be. Everything is much more parametrised, measured and controlled today. There are huge teams of people sharing a variety of responsibilities so that innovation can successfully come about while risks are minimised.

It seems everything has already been discovered today. However, it’s not true. If we construe “pioneer” to mean a person who launches himself into the unknown, space is probably the ideal destination.

Aerospace pioneers today tend to be sitting behind a desk in an office. They do not usually get into the machines they invent. They control large businesses and at the same time have a passionate desire to innovate and explore, where they invest part of their vast fortunes. Some of them are even changing the global aerospace business. Here we are talking about people like Elon Musk, Greg Wyler, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Chris Lewicki, López Urdiales, Rick Tumlinson, Robert Bigelow, etc., whose achievements are opportunely recounted by huge PR departments and magnified by social networks.

The romanticism of those who wished to fly when everybody around them said they were mad has been lost. Nonetheless, not an ounce has been lost of the guts needed to go beyond what is known and risk the security of standing with both feet on the ground.

If truth be told, mankind would not be where it is if it were not for them. We would not have even flown. Thank goodness for pioneers.



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