1. Sir George Cayley
The dream of manned flight dates back to the ancient world, but a true understanding of aerodynamic principles and practical aircraft design didn’t arrive until the work of the English polymath George Cayley. In 1799, the man known as the “Father of Aviation” drew up the earliest known plans for an aircraft that used a fixed-wing design with separate mechanisms for lift and thrust. He followed it up with a small model glider in 1804, but his biggest achievement came in 1853, when he built a full-sized glider that successfully took flight near Scarborough, England—supposedly with Sir George’s terrified carriage driver as its passenger.
While Cayley died just a year later in 1854, his scientific research into heavier-than-air flight would later serve as the theoretical backbone for many early aircraft designs. Among other things, he was the first to identify the importance of streamlining, cambered wings and pilot-controlled rudders and elevators—all innovations that the Wright Brothers would later incorporate into their own planes.
2. Otto Lilienthal
“To invent an airplane is nothing,” Otto Lilienthal once said. “To build one is something. But to fly is everything.” It was a motto the German aviator lived by. Between 1891 and 1896, he constructed 16 different glider designs and made some 2,000 successful flights, most of them from an artificial hill outside Berlin. Lilienthal’s craft were typically crude monoplanes that resembled hang gliders, but he was also a tireless experimenter who compiled reams of data on bird flight, aerodynamics and airfoil design.
His well-documented flights—some of which saw him soar as far as 800 feet—helped legitimize the quest for aviation during a time when many still considered it a fool’s errand. Photos of the “Glider King” circulated around the globe, inspiring a whole generation of aviators. “No one equaled him in power to draw new recruits to the cause,” Wilbur Wright once said. Unfortunately, Lilienthal didn’t live to see the full impact of his work. During a flight on August 9, 1896, he stalled his glider and plummeted 50 feet to the ground, fracturing his spine. The fearless aviator died the following day, supposedly after uttering the now-legendary words, “Sacrifices must be made.”
3. Alberto Santos-Dumont
While living in Paris in the early 20th century, Alberto Santos-Dumont cemented a reputation as the world’s first gentleman aviator. The flamboyant, impeccably dressed Brazilian used money from his family’s coffee planting fortune to fly hot air balloons and build groundbreaking motor-powered dirigibles. He won an aviation prize for successfully piloting an airship around the Eiffel Tower in 1901 and later used his technical brilliance to create more than a dozen different airship designs. His craft was so reliable that he was even known to tie one up outside his Paris apartment and use it to cruise to nearby restaurants and shops. Having mastered lighter-than-air vehicles, Santos-Dumont later turned his attention to building airplanes.
In 1906, he completed the first public flight in Europe when he made a short hop in a powered, box-kite-style biplane called the “14-bis.” He then returned in 1909 with the “Demoiselle” (“Dragonfly”), a lightweight, front-propeller plane whose design was widely copied. Despite his successes, Santos-Dumont struggled with mental illness during the latter stages of his life. He was reportedly horrified at seeing airplanes used as killing machines in World War I, and following several years of sanitarium visits, he committed suicide in 1932. Though little known in the United States, he’s considered a national hero in his native Brazil, where he is often credited as the inventor of the powered airplane.
4. Glenn Hammond Curtiss
Daredevil Glenn Curtiss was already the “fastest man on earth” before he ever piloted an airplane. The New York native owned a business that manufactured bicycles and engines, and in 1907 he broke a land speed record by reaching 136 miles per hour on a V8 motorcycle. That same year, he joined the newly formed Aerial Experiment Association and began putting his engines on early airplanes. A kilometer-long flight in 1908 established Curtiss as one of the Wright Brothers’ main rivals, and he went on to make history in 1910 by piloting a plane called the “Hudson Flyer” 151 miles from Albany to Manhattan—a new distance record.
Curtiss would later create at least 500 inventions while serving as the owner of his own aircraft manufacturing company. He earned the title “Father of Naval Aviation” for designing the first practical seaplane and pioneering aircraft that could take off and land on the decks of aircraft carriers, and his “flying boats” and JN-4 “Jenny” were both mainstays in the U.S. air fleet during World War I. In 1919, meanwhile, a Curtiss NC-4 flying boat became one of the first planes to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean (Alcock and Brown were the first people to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean). It would be another eight years before Charles Lindbergh made his more famous 1927 flight from New York to Paris.
5. Bessie Coleman
Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman first caught the flying bug after hearing tales of World War I pilots. When American flight schools denied her entry because of her gender and race, the daughter of Texas sharecroppers traveled to France, enrolled in the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation and emerged several months later with an international pilot’s license—the first ever awarded to an African American woman.
After more training in France, Germany and Holland, Coleman returned the United States in 1922 and began barnstorming her way across the country as a stunt pilot and daredevil. People flocked to watch “Brave Bessie” do figure eights, barrel rolls, parachute tricks and dives, and the young pilot made a statement by only performing at shows where the audience was not segregated by race.
Coleman planned to use her earnings to start an aviation school for African Americans, but her career was cut tragically short in 1926 when an equipment malfunction threw her from a plane piloted by her mechanic and sent her falling to her death. Thousand of mourners attended the beloved aviatrix’s funeral, and she later became the inspiration for the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, an organization started in 1929 to promote African American aviation.
6. Wiley Post
Wiley Post’s achievements in the cockpit were second to none, yet the Oklahoma native never achieved the legendary status of Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart. One biography of him was even titled “Forgotten Eagle.” An oil field roughneck and former criminal—he once served a year in jail for robbery—Post began his aviation career by working as a part-time parachutist and stunt pilot. His dreams of flight nearly ended after a 1926 oil rig accident left him blind in his left eye, but he soldiered on and used the insurance money to buy his first airplane. He won a major Los Angeles to Chicago air race in 1930, and in 1931 he and navigator Harold Gatty used a Lockheed Vega called the “Winnie Mae” to shatter the record for the fastest around-the-world flight.
Just two years later, Post upped the ante by becoming the first man in history to fly solo around the globe, completing the journey in a mere seven days, 18 hours and 49 minutes. The one-eyed aviator later racked up even more aviation firsts by helping develop an early pressure suit and conducting test flights at high altitudes. His brilliant career came to an end in August 1935, when he and famed humorist Will Rogers set out on an aerial tour of Alaska. During a routine takeoff, their seaplane suffered engine failure and plunged into a lake, killing both men.