For thousands of years, humans have dreamed of taking to the skies. The quest has led from kite flying in ancient China to hydrogen-powered hot-air balloons in 18th-century France to contemporary aircraft so sophisticated they can’t be detected by radar or the human eye.
Below is a timeline of humans’ obsession with flight, from da Vinci to drones. Fasten your seatbelt and prepare for liftoff.
1505-06: Da Vinci dreams of flight, publishes his findings
Few figures in history had more detailed ideas, theories and imaginings on aviation as the Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. His book Codex on the Flight of Birds contained thousands of notes and hundreds of sketches on the nature of flight and aerodynamic principles that would lay much of the early groundwork for—and greatly influence—the development of aviation and manmade aircraft.
November 21, 1783: First manned hot-air balloon flight
Two months after French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier engineered a successful test flight with a duck, a sheep and a rooster as passengers, two humans ascended in a Montgolfier-designed balloon over Paris. Powered by a hand-fed fire, the paper-and-silk aircraft rose 500 vertical feet and traveled some 5.5 miles over about half an hour. But in an 18th-century version of the space race, rival balloon engineers Jacques Alexander Charles and Nicholas Louis Robert upped the ante just 10 days later. Their balloon, powered by hydrogen gas, traveled 25 miles and stayed aloft more than two hours.
1809-1810: Sir George Cayley introduces aerodynamics
At the dawn of the 19th century, English philosopher George Cayley published “On Aerial Navigation,” a radical series of papers credited with introducing the world to the study of aerodynamics. By that time, the man who came to be known as “the father of aviation” had already been the first to identify the four forces of flight (weight, lift, drag, thrust), developed the first concept of a fixed-wing flying machine and designed the first glider reported to have carried a human aloft.
September 24, 1852: Giffard's dirigible proves powered air travel is possible
Half a century before the Wright brothers took to the skies, French engineer Henri Giffard manned the first-ever powered and controllable airborne flight. Giffard, who invented the steam injector, traveled almost 17 miles from Paris to Élancourt in his “Giffard Dirigible,” a 143-foot-long, cigar-shaped airship loosely steered by a three-bladed propeller that was powered by a 250-pound, 3-horsepower engine, itself lit by a 100-pound boiler. The flight proved that a steam-powered airship could be steered and controlled.
1876: The internal combustion engine changes everything
Building on advances by French engineers, German engineer Nikolaus Otto devised a lighter, more efficient, gas-powered combustion engine, providing an alternative to the previously universal steam-powered engine. In addition to revolutionizing automobile travel, the innovation ushered in a new era of longer, more controlled aviation.
December 17, 1903: The Wright brothers become airborne—briefly
Flying from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first controlled, sustained flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft. Each brother flew their wooden, gasoline-powered propeller biplane, the “Wright Flyer,” twice (four flights total), with the shortest lasting 12 seconds and the longest sustaining flight for about 59 seconds. Considered a historic event today, the feat was largely ignored by newspapers of the time, who believed the flights were too short to be important.
1907: The first helicopter lifts off
French engineer and bicycle maker Paul Cornu became the first man to ride a rotary-wing, vertical-lift aircraft, a precursor to today’s helicopter, when he was lifted about 1.5 meters off the ground for 20 seconds near Lisieux, France. Versions of the helicopter had been toyed with in the past—Italian engineer Enrico Forlanini debuted the first rotorcraft three decades prior in 1877. And it would be improved upon in the future, with American designer Igor Sikorsky introducing a more standardized version in Stratford, Connecticut in 1939. But it was Cornu’s short flight that would land him in the history books as the definitive first.
1911-12: Harriet Quimby achieves two firsts for women pilots
Journalist Harriet Quimby became the first American woman ever awarded a pilot’s license in 1911, after just four months of flight lessons. Capitalizing on her charisma and showmanship (she became as famous for her violet satin flying suit as for her attention to safety checks), Quimby achieved another first the following year when she became the first woman to fly solo across the English channel. The feat was overshadowed, however, by the sinking of the Titanic two days earlier.
October 1911: The aircraft becomes militarized
Italy became the first country to significantly incorporate aircraft into military operations when, during the Turkish-Italian war, it employed both monoplanes and airships for bombing, reconnaissance and transportation. Within a few years, aircraft would play a decisive role in the World War I.
January 1, 1914: First commercial passenger flight
On New Year’s Day, pilot Tony Jannus transported a single passenger, Mayor Abe Pheil of St. Petersburg, Florida across Tampa Bay via his flying airboat, the “St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line.” The 23-mile flight (mostly along the Tampa Bay shore) cost $5.00 and would lay the foundation for the commercial airline industry.
1914-1918: World war accelerates the militarization of aircraft
World War I became the first major conflict to use aircraft on a large-scale, expanding their use in active combat. Nations appointed high-ranking generals to oversee air strategy, and a new breed of war hero emerged: the fighter pilot or “flying ace.”
According to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, France was the war’s leading aircraft manufacturer, producing nearly 68,000 planes between 1914 and 1918. Of those, nearly 53,000 were shot down, crashed or damaged.
June 1919: First nonstop transatlantic flight
Flying a modified ‘Vickers Vimy’ bomber from the Great War, British aviators and war veterans John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first-ever nonstop transatlantic flight. Their perilous 16-hour journey, undertaken eight years before Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic alone, started in St. John's, Newfoundland, where they barely cleared the trees at the end of the runway. After a calamity-filled flight, they crash-landed in a peat bog in County Galway, Ireland; remarkably, neither man was injured.
1921: Bessie Coleman becomes the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license
The fact that Jim Crow-era U.S. flight schools wouldn’t accept a Black woman didn’t stop Bessie Coleman. Instead, the Texas-born sharecropper’s daughter, one of 13 siblings, learned French so she could apply to the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. There, in 1921, she became the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license. After performing the first public flight by a Black woman in 1922—including her soon-to-be trademark loop-the-loop and figure-8 aerial maneuvers—she became renowned for her thrilling daredevil air shows and for using her growing fame to encourage Black Americans to pursue flying. Coleman died tragically in 1926, as a passenger in a routine test flight. Thousands reportedly attended her funeral in Chicago.
1927: Lucky Lindy makes first solo transatlantic flight
Nearly a decade after Alcock and Brown made their transatlantic flight together, 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh of Detroit was thrust into worldwide fame when he completed the first solo crossing, just a few days after a pair of celebrated French aviators perished in their own attempt. Flying the “Spirit of St. Louis” aircraft from New York to Paris, “Lucky Lindy” made the first transatlantic voyage between two major hubs—and the longest transatlantic flight by more than 2,000 miles. The feat instantly made Lindbergh one of the great folk heroes of his time, earned him the Medal of Honor and helped usher in a new era of interest in the possibilities of aviation.
1932: Amelia Earhart repeats Lindbergh’s feat
Five years after Lindbergh completed his flight, “Lady Lindy” Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, setting off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland on May 20, 1932 and landing some 14 hours later in Culmore, Northern Ireland. In her career as an aviator, Earhart would become a worldwide celebrity, setting several women’s speed, domestic distance and transcontinental aviation records. Her most memorable feat, however, would prove to be her last. In 1937, while attempting to circumnavigate the globe, Earhart disappeared over the central Pacific ocean and was never seen or heard from again.
1937: The Hindenburg crashes…along with the ‘Age of Airships’
Between WWI and WWII, aviation pioneers and major aircraft companies like Germany’s Luftshiffbau Zeppelin tried hard to popularize bulbous, lighter-than-air airships—essentially giant flying gas bags—as a mode of commercial transportation. The promise of the steam-powered, hydrogen-filled airships quickly evaporated, however, after the infamous 1937 Hindenburg disaster. That’s when the gas inside the Zeppelin company’s flagship Hindenburg vessel exploded during a landing attempt, killing 35 passengers and crew members and badly burning the majority of the 62 remaining survivors.
October 14, 1947: Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier
An ace combat fighter during WWII, Chuck Yeager earned the title “Fastest Man Alive” when he hit 700 m.p.h. while testing the experimental X-1 supersonic rocket jet for the military over the Mojave Desert in 1947. Being the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound has been hailed as one of the most epic feats in the history of aviation—not bad for someone who got sick to his stomach after his first-ever flight.
1949: The world’s first commercial jetliner takes off
Early passenger air travel was noisy, cold, uncomfortable and bumpy, as planes flew at low altitudes that brought them through, not above, the weather. But when the British-manufactured de Havilland Comet took its first flight in 1949—boasting four turbine engines, a pressurized cabin, large windows and a relatively comfortable seating area—it marked a pivotal step in modern commercial air travel. An early, flawed design however, caused the de Havilland to be grounded after a series of mid-flight disasters—but not before giving the world a glimpse of what was possible.
1954-1957: Boeing glamorizes flying
With the debut of the sleek 707 aircraft, touted for its comfort, speed and safety, Seattle-based Boeing ushered in the age of modern American jet travel. Pan American Airways became the first commercial carrier to take delivery of the elongated, swept-wing planes, launching daily flights from New York to Paris. The 707 quickly became a symbol of postwar modernity—a time when air travel would become commonplace, people dressed up to fly and flight attendants reflected the epitome of chic. The plane even inspired Frank Sinatra’s hit song “Come Fly With Me.”
March 27, 1977: Disaster at Tenerife
In the greatest aviation disaster in history, 583 people were killed and dozens more injured when two Boeing 747 jets—Pan Am 1736 and KLM 4805—collided on the Los Rodeos Airport runway in Spain’s Canary Islands. The collision occurred when the KLM jet, trying to navigate a runway shrouded in fog, initiated its takeoff run while the Pan Am jetliner was still on the runway. All aboard the KLM flight and most on the Pan Am flight were killed. Tragically, neither plane was scheduled to fly from that airport on that day, but a small bomb set off at a nearby airport caused them both to be diverted to Los Rodeos.
1978: Flight goes electronic
The U.S. Air Force developed and debuted the first fly-by-wire operating system for its F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter plane. The system, which replaced the aircraft’s manual flight control system with an electronic one, ushered in aviation’s “Information Age,” one in which navigation, communications and hundreds of other operating systems are automated with computers. This advance has led to developments like unmanned aerial vehicles and drones, more nimble missiles and the proliferation of stealth aircraft.
1986: Around the world, without landing
American pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager (no relation to Chuck) completed the first around-the-world flight without refueling or landing. Their “Rutan Model 76 Voyager,” a single-wing, twin-engine craft designed by Rutan’s brother, was built with 17 fuel tanks to accommodate long-distance flight.