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Otto Lilienthal, the first person in the world to make successful and repeated glider flights, had a fatal 49-foot fall in a glider on this date in 1896. Lilienthal was a German Jew who, with his brother Gustav, studied the flight of birds, received 25 patents for various inventions, and designed and flew a dozen gliders — monoplanes, wing flapping aircraft, and biplanes. Between 1891 and his death, he made 2,000 flights (usually beginning with a leap off a hill) of up to 820 feet for a total flying time of five hours, and appeared as “the Glider King” in photographs in journals all around the world. Charles Lindbergh paid tribute to Lilienthal in a 1928 article in the New York Times, writing that “the beginning of the airplane [was] the result of the knowledge Lilienthal gained by patient observation of such things as washing [i.e., laundry on a line] and the wings of birds. He learned that a curved surface with a thick leading edge like that of a bird lifted better than one with a thin edge although he did not know why this was the case. Now we know it is due to the greater vacuum produced above the wing.” The Wright Brothers also acknowledged him as a major source of inspiration. To view a video about Lilienthal’s innovations, look below.
“The technical development of the airplane has been so unnoticed that the labor of years seemed to reach its fruition almost overnight.” —Charles Lindbergh