History Stories

For thousands of years, humans have dreamed of taking to the skies. The quest has led from kite flying in ancient China to hydrogen-powered hot-air balloons in 18th-century France to contemporary aircraft so sophisticated they can’t be detected by radar or the human eye.

Below is a timeline of humans’ obsession with flight, from da Vinci to drones. Fasten your seatbelt and prepare for liftoff.

1505-06: Da Vinci dreams of flight, publishes his findings

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci.

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci

Few figures in history had more detailed ideas, theories and imaginings on aviation as the Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. His book Codex on the Flight of Birds contained thousands of notes and hundreds of sketches on the nature of flight and aerodynamic principles that would lay much of the early groundwork for—and greatly influence—the development of aviation and manmade aircraft.

November 21, 1783: First manned hot-air balloon flight

Two months after French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier engineered a successful test flight with a duck, a sheep and a rooster as passengers, two humans ascended in a Montgolfier-designed balloon over Paris. Powered by a hand-fed fire, the paper-and-silk aircraft rose 500 vertical feet and traveled some 5.5 miles over about half an hour. But in an 18th-century version of the space race, rival balloon engineers Jacques Alexander Charles and Nicholas Louis Robert upped the ante just 10 days later. Their balloon, powered by hydrogen gas, traveled 25 miles and stayed aloft more than two hours.

READ MORE: 6 Little-Known Pioneers of Aviation

1809-1810: Sir George Cayley introduces aerodynamics

At the dawn of the 19th century, English philosopher George Cayley published “On Aerial Navigation,” a radical series of papers credited with introducing the world to the study of aerodynamics. By that time, the man who came to be known as “the father of aviation” had already been the first to identify the four forces of flight (weight, lift, drag, thrust), developed the first concept of a fixed-wing flying machine and designed the first glider reported to have carried a human aloft.

WATCH: Full episodes of 'The Machines That Built America' online now and tune in for all-new episodes Sundays at 9/8c.

September 24, 1852: Giffard's dirigible proves powered air travel is possible

Half a century before the Wright brothers took to the skies, French engineer Henri Giffard manned the first-ever powered and controllable airborne flight. Giffard, who invented the steam injector, traveled almost 17 miles from Paris to Élancourt in his “Giffard Dirigible,” a 143-foot-long, cigar-shaped airship loosely steered by a three-bladed propeller that was powered by a 250-pound, 3-horsepower engine, itself lit by a 100-pound boiler. The flight proved that a steam-powered airship could be steered and controlled.

1876: The internal combustion engine changes everything

Building on advances by French engineers, German engineer Nikolaus Otto devised a lighter, more efficient, gas-powered combustion engine, providing an alternative to the previously universal steam-powered engine. In addition to revolutionizing automobile travel, the innovation ushered in a new era of longer, more controlled aviation.

December 17, 1903: The Wright brothers become airborne—briefly

Orville and Wilbur Wright on a test flight 

Orville and Wilbur Wright on a test flight 

Flying from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first controlled, sustained flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft. Each brother flew their wooden, gasoline-powered propeller biplane, the “Wright Flyer,” twice (four flights total), with the shortest lasting 12 seconds and the longest sustaining flight for about 59 seconds. Considered a historic event today, the feat was largely ignored by newspapers of the time, who believed the flights were too short to be important.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About the Wright Brothers

1907: The first helicopter lifts off

A vintage French postcard featuring the helicopter of Paul Cornu of Lisieux, France, who piloted the first manned flight of a rotary wing aircraft on 13th November 1907.

A vintage French postcard featuring the helicopter of Paul Cornu of Lisieux, France, who piloted the first manned flight of a rotary wing aircraft in November 1907.

French engineer and bicycle maker Paul Cornu became the first man to ride a rotary-wing, vertical-lift aircraft, a precursor to today’s helicopter, when he was lifted about 1.5 meters off the ground for 20 seconds near Lisieux, France. Versions of the helicopter had been toyed with in the past—Italian engineer Enrico Forlanini debuted the first rotorcraft three decades prior in 1877. And it would be improved upon in the future, with American designer Igor Sikorsky introducing a more standardized version in Stratford, Connecticut in 1939. But it was Cornu’s short flight that would land him in the history books as the definitive first.

1911-12: Harriet Quimby achieves two firsts for women pilots

Journalist Harriet Quimby became the first American woman ever awarded a pilot’s license in 1911, after just four months of flight lessons. Capitalizing on her charisma and showmanship (she became as famous for her violet satin flying suit as for her attention to safety checks), Quimby achieved another first the following year when she became the first woman to fly solo across the English channel. The feat was overshadowed, however, by the sinking of the Titanic two days earlier.

October 1911: The aircraft becomes militarized

Italy became the first country to significantly incorporate aircraft into military operations when, during the Turkish-Italian war, it employed both monoplanes and airships for bombing, reconnaissance and transportation. Within a few years, aircraft would play a decisive role in the World War I.

READ MORE: The High-Flying Fraudster of Early Aviation

January 1, 1914: First commercial passenger flight

On New Year’s Day, pilot Tony Jannus transported a single passenger, Mayor Abe Pheil of St. Petersburg, Florida across Tampa Bay via his flying airboat, the “St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line.” The 23-mile flight (mostly along the Tampa Bay shore) cost $5.00 and would lay the foundation for the commercial airline industry.

READ MORE: How America's Aviation Industry Got Its Start Transporting Mail

1914-1918: World war accelerates the militarization of aircraft

World War I became the first major conflict to use aircraft on a large-scale, expanding their use in active combat. Nations appointed high-ranking generals to oversee air strategy, and a new breed of war hero emerged: the fighter pilot or “flying ace.”

According to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, France was the war’s leading aircraft manufacturer, producing nearly 68,000 planes between 1914 and 1918. Of those, nearly 53,000 were shot down, crashed or damaged.

READ MORE: 6 Famous World War I Flying Aces

Recommended for you

June 1919: First nonstop transatlantic flight

The first nonstop transatlantic flight ended with a nosedive into a bog in western Ireland. The pilots walked away unscathed.

The first nonstop transatlantic flight ended with a nosedive into a bog in western Ireland. The pilots walked away unscathed.

Flying a modified ‘Vickers Vimy’ bomber from the Great War, British aviators and war veterans John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first-ever nonstop transatlantic flight. Their perilous 16-hour journey, undertaken eight years before Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic alone, started in St. John's, Newfoundland, where they barely cleared the trees at the end of the runway. After a calamity-filled flight, they crash-landed in a peat bog in County Galway, Ireland; remarkably, neither man was injured.

READ MORE: The First Nonstop Flight Across the Atlantic Lasted 16 Harrowing Hours

1921: Bessie Coleman becomes the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license

Bessie Coleman

Pioneering aviatrix Bessie Coleman 

The fact that Jim Crow-era U.S. flight schools wouldn’t accept a Black woman didn’t stop Bessie Coleman. Instead, the Texas-born sharecropper’s daughter, one of 13 siblings, learned French so she could apply to the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. There, in 1921, she became the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license. After performing the first public flight by a Black woman in 1922—including her soon-to-be trademark loop-the-loop and figure-8 aerial maneuvers—she became renowned for her thrilling daredevil air shows and for using her growing fame to encourage Black Americans to pursue flying. Coleman died tragically in 1926, as a passenger in a routine test flight. Thousands reportedly attended her funeral in Chicago.

READ MORE: 7 Death-Defying Historic American Daredevils

1927: Lucky Lindy makes first solo transatlantic flight

Charles Lindbergh with his historic plane 'Spirit of St. Louis'

Charles Lindbergh with his historic plane 'Spirit of St. Louis'

Nearly a decade after Alcock and Brown made their transatlantic flight together, 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh of Detroit was thrust into worldwide fame when he completed the first solo crossing, just a few days after a pair of celebrated French aviators perished in their own attempt. Flying the “Spirit of St. Louis” aircraft from New York to Paris, “Lucky Lindy” made the first transatlantic voyage between two major hubs—and the longest transatlantic flight by more than 2,000 miles. The feat instantly made Lindbergh one of the great folk heroes of his time, earned him the Medal of Honor and helped usher in a new era of interest in the possibilities of aviation.

READ MORE: 10 Fascinating Facts About Charles Lindbergh

1932: Amelia Earhart repeats Lindbergh’s feat

Amelia Earhart, pictured with the Lockheed Electra in which she disappeared in 1937.

Aviatrix Amelia Earhart

Five years after Lindbergh completed his flight, “Lady Lindy” Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, setting off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland on May 20, 1932 and landing some 14 hours later in Culmore, Northern Ireland. In her career as an aviator, Earhart would become a worldwide celebrity, setting several women’s speed, domestic distance and transcontinental aviation records. Her most memorable feat, however, would prove to be her last. In 1937, while attempting to circumnavigate the globe, Earhart disappeared over the central Pacific ocean and was never seen or heard from again.

READ MORE: Tantalizing Theories About the Earhart Disappearance

1937: The Hindenburg crashes…along with the ‘Age of Airships’

The Hindenburg bursts into blames above Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937.

The Hindenburg bursts into blames above Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937.

Between WWI and WWII, aviation pioneers and major aircraft companies like Germany’s Luftshiffbau Zeppelin tried hard to popularize bulbous, lighter-than-air airships—essentially giant flying gas bags—as a mode of commercial transportation. The promise of the steam-powered, hydrogen-filled airships quickly evaporated, however, after the infamous 1937 Hindenburg disaster. That’s when the gas inside the Zeppelin company’s flagship Hindenburg vessel exploded during a landing attempt, killing 35 passengers and crew members and badly burning the majority of the 62 remaining survivors.

READ MORE: The Hindenburg Disaster: 9 Surprising Facts

October 14, 1947: Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier

An ace combat fighter during WWII, Chuck Yeager earned the title “Fastest Man Alive” when he hit 700 m.p.h. while testing the experimental X-1 supersonic rocket jet for the military over the Mojave Desert in 1947. Being the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound has been hailed as one of the most epic feats in the history of aviation—not bad for someone who got sick to his stomach after his first-ever flight.

READ MORE: 6 Renowned Tuskegee Airmen

1949: The world’s first commercial jetliner takes off

Early passenger air travel was noisy, cold, uncomfortable and bumpy, as planes flew at low altitudes that brought them through, not above, the weather. But when the British-manufactured de Havilland Comet took its first flight in 1949—boasting four turbine engines, a pressurized cabin, large windows and a relatively comfortable seating area—it marked a pivotal step in modern commercial air travel. An early, flawed design however, caused the de Havilland to be grounded after a series of mid-flight disasters—but not before giving the world a glimpse of what was possible.

1954-1957: Boeing glamorizes flying

With the debut of the sleek 707 aircraft, touted for its comfort, speed and safety, Seattle-based Boeing ushered in the age of modern American jet travel. Pan American Airways became the first commercial carrier to take delivery of the elongated, swept-wing planes, launching daily flights from New York to Paris. The 707 quickly became a symbol of postwar modernity—a time when air travel would become commonplace, people dressed up to fly and flight attendants reflected the epitome of chic. The plane even inspired Frank Sinatra’s hit song “Come Fly With Me.”

READ MORE: The Chinese-Born Engineer Who Helped Launch US Commercial Aviation

March 27, 1977: Disaster at Tenerife

In the greatest aviation disaster in history, 583 people were killed and dozens more injured when two Boeing 747 jets—Pan Am 1736 and KLM 4805—collided on the Los Rodeos Airport runway in Spain’s Canary Islands. The collision occurred when the KLM jet, trying to navigate a runway shrouded in fog, initiated its takeoff run while the Pan Am jetliner was still on the runway. All aboard the KLM flight and most on the Pan Am flight were killed. Tragically, neither plane was scheduled to fly from that airport on that day, but a small bomb set off at a nearby airport caused them both to be diverted to Los Rodeos.

1978: Flight goes electronic

The U.S. Air Force developed and debuted the first fly-by-wire operating system for its F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter plane. The system, which replaced the aircraft’s manual flight control system with an electronic one, ushered in aviation’s “Information Age,” one in which navigation, communications and hundreds of other operating systems are automated with computers. This advance has led to developments like unmanned aerial vehicles and drones, more nimble missiles and the proliferation of stealth aircraft.

READ MORE: Automation of Planes Began 9 Years After the Wright Brothers Took Flight, But It Still Leads to Baffling Disasters

1986: Around the world, without landing

American pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager (no relation to Chuck) completed the first around-the-world flight without refueling or landing. Their “Rutan Model 76 Voyager,” a single-wing, twin-engine craft designed by Rutan’s brother, was built with 17 fuel tanks to accommodate long-distance flight.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

RELATED CONTENT