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Clement Ader invented in the late 1890s, a plane that looked like a bat. It had a steam engine. Witnesses said it went airborne at least once and recorded a distance just over 50 meters. The Wright brothers made their first controlled flight in 1903.

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    $\begingroup$ See also this question:skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/4661/… $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Nov 21 '14 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ John Brown, an Australian aviator seems to have proved that Gustave Whitehead, who emigrated in the US, but was born in Germany as Gustav Weisskopf, flew a powered aircraft in 1901. Brown has set a site with lots of facts. On the other hand, the Smithsonian is bound to state the Kitty Hawk flight was the first one regardless of the truth, else the Flyer would be back to the Wright family... $\endgroup$ – mins Jul 23 '16 at 20:23
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Lots of people flew before the Wright Brothers. Some of them even survived!

The Wright Brothers are credited as inventors of the airplane not because they flew, but because they were the first to take flight in a vehicle which:

  • Lifted itself using its own power (which gliders and kites did not)
  • Was aerodynamically controllable by the pilot (which Ader's aircraft was not)
  • Remained in sustained flight, rather than taking momentary flight before returning to Earth
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget that there was a lively discussion before Orville gave the 1903 Flyer airplane to the Smithsonian. He had lended it to the British Museum before, precisely because the Smithsonian would not accept his condition that the Wright brothers must be named as the sole inventor of the airplane (which they weren't - it was a collective effort). After WWII the Smithsonian changed its mind and accepted the condition. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Nov 21 '14 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf: Indeed, the aerodynamicist (forgot his name) who the Wright Brothers consulted when researching flight got really pissed off that the Wright Brothers attempted to patent the airplane. Before the Wright Brothers, advances in flight were considered academic (what we'd today call open source). The Wright brothers didn't succeed in patenting the airplane, only the flex wing mechanism that gave them roll control. Ailerons were invented partly as a work-around for the patent. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Nov 21 '14 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ @slebetman: Actually, both wing warping and ailerons had been invented before. I consider the Wright brothers the first patent trolls in aviation. After all, they did not design new airplanes after the Flyer III, but tried to milk their patents. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Nov 21 '14 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ @jean : I don't know if you're just kidding but the wikipedia page you cite mentions "official witnesses" as opposed to just plain witnesses. There were five witnesses present at Kill Devil Hills on Dec 17 1903 for the Wrights first flight, albeit not officers of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale but as that body didn't exist until almost two years later it would have been rather difficult to arrange. $\endgroup$ – glaucon Nov 27 '14 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf You forgot to mention another part of the Smithsonian dispute. Samuel P. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian. His own attempts at powered flight using his aircraft 'Aerodrome' were complete failures and yet the 'Aerodrome' was displayed for a number of years in the Smithsonian as the first powered heavier-than-air aircraft. It was not too surprising then that Orville Wright insisted that if their craft was to be displayed it should given its proper priority. More details of this bizarre story here : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_brothers#Smithsonian_feud . $\endgroup$ – glaucon Nov 27 '14 at 8:37
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In a way, he did. But he had little control about all axes. Derisory comments even suggested he only took to the air thanks to his bumpy runway.

But there were plenty more before him. The first flying objects which anticipated the airplane were the models of Alphonse Pénaud. He finished the Planophore in 1871 and influenced all who came after him. Unfortunately, at his time there was no energy source to power a man-carrying aircraft, and his models used rubber bands for storing energy. Please note that he did not forget to add a vertical tail; his design did not need it - the tail-mounted propeller stabilized it well enough.

The next big step was made by Otto Lilienthal, and again the lacking power source restricted him, in his case to man-carrying gliders. He saw the airplane as a piece of sporting equipment, like a racing bicycle, and priced them accordingly. He sold over a dozen of them to people all over the world. And he was the first to use systematic scientific research: He found out that a thick, blunt leading edge and wing camber help to improve L/D. The polar plot has its name from him. He experimented with carbon acid engines, but never used a propeller, flapping the wing tips of one of his designs instead. He also invented wing twisting long before the Wrights, and shared his results freely with the aviation pioneers of his time. The Wright Brothers built their success on the basis of his work, and were much more secretive.

If we mention Clement Ader, we also need to include Hiram Maxim and maybe even Samuel P. Langley. They (and a few more) all tried to create powered aircraft, but did not get it all right. At least, Langley's assistant Manly and S. Balzer gave the world the radial engine.

The next pioneer would be Gustav Weißkopf (or Gustave Whitehead) who seemed to have flown a plane which took a lot of inspiration from Lilienthal's designs, but added a boat-like fuselage and wheels, so he had his hands free for steering the plane. Lilienthal had put himself into a tight corner by foot-launching his gliders and needing his hands to hold them. Whitehead flew in 1901, but discontinued his work to focus on his family. But he was the prime address of his time for airplane engines; many of the early pioneers bought his engines.

Only now the Wrights contributed their part, and are known as the inventors of the airplane due to a contract Orville made with the Smithsonian: The Smithsonian got the 1903 Flyer, but needs to present the Wrights as the sole inventors of the aircraft. Orville knew exactly how weak this claim was, so he insisted on this clause.

Meanwhile, in Europe, a number of pioneers achieved also powered, controlled flight without using the Wright's knowledge, because Orville and Wilbur kept their findings under tight wraps and started suing everyone who would also attempt to take to the air. But at the Le Mans flight meeting of 1908 the Wrights showed off their more maneuverable design, shaming all European designers. How little lasting effect they had in the end becomes clear when you look at the airplanes that followed: The inspiration clearly came from others.

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    $\begingroup$ It is seriously disputed that Whitehead actually flew in 1901. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Nov 21 '14 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ Ader's maximum altitude was a few inches. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Nov 21 '14 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ If you're counting gliders among the precursors, "The first flying objects ... were the models of Alphonse Pénaud " would have come as a surprise to George Cayley (who did employ a vertical tail fin). $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Jun 26 '15 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ What Cayley did is hard to verify - there is much less evidence than for the flights of Whitehead, and Whiteheads achievements are mostly ignored for that reason. One granddaughter and one coachman made some remarks decades after the fact - if he really had been successful, would he not had continued and would not had others tried to follow suit? Please look at the planophore, and then at the sketches we have from Cayley: Which one really looks like an airplane? $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jun 26 '15 at 16:56
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The Langley machine was a disaster, despite its advanced Manly radial engine. Langley had given almost no serious thought to the problems of stability and control. But the Smithsonian shot itself in the foot when it hired Glenn Curtiss to "make a few adjustments" in order to make that machine fly. And Curtiss was indeed sorta successful a decade later, giving rise to the Smithsonian's claim of priority (and a "successful" use of the $50K of taxpayer money Langley had spent!)

It was this skullduggery which enraged Orville Wright and led to his shipping his Flyer to London. It was only after WWII that the Smithsonian mended its ways with Orville, documenting all the extensive modifications Curtiss had made to the Langley machine, that Orville consented to the return of the 1903 Flyer.

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The 1897 plane of Clement Ader has never left the ground,

see: General Mensier's Report

Clement Ader did not fly. The October 21, 1897 report made by general MENSIER and its annex from October 27, 1897 (see the link) are clear, Ader’s plane never left the ground with its front wheels in both the October 12 and 14, 1897 officially witnessed tests. The October 14, 1897 alleged take off and short flight is a pure myth contradicted by historical documents.

Was Clement Ader an aviation pioneer? Yes, because he built a plane in 1897. Was he a flyer? No. Did he fly earlier in 1890? No. The 1897 (Avion III) plane was seen on the ground by General Mensier and his comision. Other earlier planes (Avion I and II), Ader claimed he had built, has never been seen in the air or on the ground.

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Montgolfier brothers were the first to invent a flying machine... But if you are looking for piloted, controlled, heavier-than-air, sustained, flight the Wrights were the first one to do that (their longest flight on December 17, 1903, was 852 feet). Ader didn't really have control or sustained flight. Objections that the Wrights tried to keep their invention under wraps are noted--and sustained. Early on, Santos-Dumont did much more for the science and art of flying in the mind of the public, but he was not the first. Whitehead spun some great yarns but never flew a powered airplane (as vociferous as Whitehead's boosters are, the proof for any powered flights is thin and poorly substantiated).

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Fact: Man kind only flew in 1906. That glider wasn't able to fly. Check this article

US patent was only granted the "invention" to the brothers many years later on a new "re-invented version" with the purpose of allowing airplane to be produced for military purposes.

Now check the video of first airplane really flying, greatest moment for human kind can't be stolen by fake papers:

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to aviation.SE. Please consider adjusting your language, "fact:" and "fake papers" sound a bit like a conspiracy rant, and we are not too appreciative of those. Moreover, I don't see how that wired article would support any of your statements, the fact that a replica would not fly is not proof that the original could not either. $\endgroup$ – Federico Oct 5 '17 at 18:34

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