Otto Lilienthal, known as the “Glider King” was a German early pioneer of aviation. The first person ever to make well-documented, repeated successful flights, his carefully-recorded experiments directly influenced the Wright Brothers.
At a young age, Otto, together with his brother Gustav, developed an early fascination with flying. In order to understand the mechanisms of flight, they naturally turned to observing the movements of birds. Although he later became a professional design engineer, Otto’s passion for flying and aerodynamic study as a hobby never waned. The brothers continued to work together on various technical, social, and cultural projects throughout their lives.
Lilienthal believed that learning to glide was the natural forerunner to future designs and advancements in aviation. While developing his designs for flying machines, he focused on how the shape of wings could generate the most efficient flight. His book Bird Flight as the Basis of Aviation, published in 1889 after 20 years of experiments, was a foundation for his later designs, and a classic in the world of aerodynamics.
Between 1891 and 1896 Lilienthal chalked up over 2,000 successful flights with his various glider designs, but probably most significant then was his total flying time of five hours. The description for his Flying Machine patent of 1894 (featured here in our Lilienthal Glider design) as filed states: “The object of these flying-machines is to imitate the soaring of birds…” The glider built from this patent was later named Sturmflügel-Modell (Storm Wing Model)—the wings are reduced in size from Lilienthal’s previous “normal gliders” in order to withstand stronger winds. Its A-frame is echoed today in the control frame for modern hang gliders and ultralight aicraft.
A notable link exists between Lilienthal and the success of the Wright Brothers in their quest for powered flight. From pamphlets they obtained, published by the Smithsonian, the Wright Brothers studied Lillenthal’s experiments and designs. The wing surface of their 1901 machine was specifically modeled after a bi-plane configuration that had been refined from the Storm Wing Model glider. Wilbur Wright considered Lilienthal the man who gave them “the necessary knowledge and inspiration on flying from his pioneering work on aerodynamics and the theory of flight.”
Sadly, Otto Lilienthal was fatally injured from a glider crash in August 1896, but, his important legacy has lived on. He always felt that flight would not be realized suddenly by one machine but would be a progression of viable flying machines, each proving more capable than its predecessor. As he lay dying, his last words to his brother were: “Sacrifices must be made.”
Today, while standing at Berlin’s busiest airport named in his honor (Berlin Tegel “Otto Lilienthal” Airport), Lilienthal might be amazed at how far aviation has come, thanks in large part to his early experiments, study, and sacrifice. Then again, perhaps he would have expected this very progress.