Hang-gliders – nowadays, they are almost a self-evident sight and a must-do for all extreme sport lovers and adrenaline junkies. However, in the days of the Lilienthals, it was a phenomenon that was usually met with pity and ridicule – at first. At the end of the 19th century, people like Otto and Gustav were often seen as weirdos - and that’s putting it mildly.
And Otto, in particular, provided plenty to talk about when he tried to jump off a hill with his homemade contraptions. But, his success proved him right. Otto Lilienthal was the first man in the world to achieve free flight through the air. And it wasn’t according to the ‘lighter than air’ principle in a balloon. But ‘heavier than air’, like a bird.
Otto Lilienthal’s success didn’t come down to mere chance or brilliant inspiration. The aviation pioneer’s success was the sole result of systematic scientific work. Such as, for example, the observation of birds in the sky.
In his book about the flight of birds, he wrote: “The observation of nature is such that it gives food for thought time and again: The art of flying cannot and must not be denied to man forever.”
Together with his brother Gustav, he built experimental devices, noted his measurements and in doings so developed his theory for flying. The two finally discovered the secret behind what propels someone into the air by designing aircraft wings modelled after the wings of birds.
What drove Otto Lilienthal to his pioneering success, above all, was his never-ending passion. For him, flying was an art through which one could gain not only theoretical but also physical knowledge. For Lilienthal, flying was simply “indescribably beautiful” and, in his own words, “the gentle glide over the vast sunny mountain slopes sparked renewed fervour with every jump".