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Who Was the First Person to Fly?

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On Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright brothers' Flyer took to the air at Kitty Hawk, N.C. (Image credit: NASA)

Orville and Wilbur might jump to mind. But the Wright Brothers were half a century late.

Lots of pioneers risked their necks over many decades (and even centuries) to get humans off the ground by various means, from flapping their pseudo-wings to gliding off cliffs.

Still, few are remembered so well or mentioned so often as the Wright Brothers, whose "Flying Machine" was the first powered airplane to execute controlled and sustained flight. They did it on Dec. 17, 1903. The pilot was Orville, since Wilbur had taken his turn in a failed previous attempt. The Wright Flyer was in the air for 12 seconds and went 120 feet.

But this was not the first human flight.

Modern flight began in 1783 when Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Ètienne Montgolfier engineered the first hot-air balloon flights. On Oct. 15, 1783, the Montgolfiers brothers launched a balloon on a tether with Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a chemistry and physics teacher, as the passenger. In that era, nobody knew if a person could withstand the rigors of being up in the air, so a previous flight had included animals, to see if they survived. They did, as did de Rozier. Later that year, the first untethered flight was made.

The Wright Brothers' achievement is sometimes erroneously called "the first powered flight." Even that's disputed.

The first powered flight was Henri Giffard's steam-powered airship (image below) in 1852. On Sept. 24, 1852, Giffard traveled almost 17 miles (27 kilometers) from Paris to Trappes moving at about 6 miles per hour (10 kilometers/hour). His airship could be steered only in calm weather, though. In wind, it could fly only in slow circles.

Clément Ader went half the length of a football field in a bat-winged setup that many view as the first manned, powered, heavier-than-air flight in 1890.

The Wright Brothers achievement is properly called "the first manned, powered, heavier-than-air and (to some degree) controlled" flight.

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Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.