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Aviation cold case: DLR seeks to solve Lilienthal's fatal accidentAviation cold case: DLR seeks to solve Lilienthal's fatal accident

Otto Lilienthal in flight, 1894. The photo was taken near Berlin, Germany, where Lilienthal had built a hill specifically to launch his gliders. Photo courtesy of DLR.

Otto Lilienthal is considered the first human to fly an aircraft (balloons excluded), and the first aeronautical engineer. His pioneering design paved the way for the Wright Brothers and others who followed. It also was his undoing: Lilienthal died a day after stalling about 50 feet above ground on Aug. 9, 1896, in a cash of his “normalsegelapparat,” or conventional glider, which earned him the less welcome distinction of being among aviation’s first fatalities.

It is a crash that researchers at the German aerospace agency DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt) hope to better understand with modern tools.

While not the first replica of a Lilienthal glider, DLR said this will be the first historically accurate replica, created from Lilienthal’s original drawings, which are housed today at the Otto Lilienthal Museum in Anklam, Germany, where the replica will be built. Rigorous testing of the fabric used on the original will help re-create the material in detail, and once the museum finishes construction, the glider will be tested in one of Europe’s largest and most sophisticated wind tunnels.

Lilenthal’s 1895 U.S. patent. Image courtesy of DLR.

“This project … was initiated not only in order to conduct scientific research into the early days of aeronautics, but also to commemorate and honour one of the world’s most renowned aviation pioneers,” said Rolf Henke, the DLR Executive Board member responsible for aeronautics research, in a DLR news release. “We are the leading aeronautics research organisation in Germany, so this project takes us back to our origins. Our work is based on Lilienthal’s scientific legacy.”

Andreas Dillmann, head of the DLR Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology that will conduct the detailed analysis, said Lilienthal was the father of the science of aerodynamics: “Lilienthal was the first aerodynamic researcher to proceed according to scientific principles. Until then, there had only been hobbyists.”

Researchers expect to demonstrate that Lilienthal’s glider was stable about all three axes, and will pay particular attention to the wing profile and how it compares to modern airfoils. They hope this study will give new insights into the cause of Lilienthal’s fatal crash.

“Our aim is to comprehensively understand its flight mechanics and aerodynamic performance,” Dillmann said. “How far could he fly, depending on the take-off elevation? In which areas was he able to maintain stable and safe flight?”

Otto Lilienthal built a “flying station” to both launch and store his gliders. Photo courtesy of DLR.
Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Online Associate Editor
AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.
Topics: Glider, Technology

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