Aviation history: They said it couldn’t be doneAviation history: They said it couldn’t be done
50 aircraft designs that make you go ‘huh?’—including many that actually fly
February 1, 2020By Julie Summers Walker
Man has wanted to fly since he first envied the birds. Early inventors strapped wings to their arms and leaped into the air, while others designed aircraft based on what now appear to be crazy notions.
Illustration by Matt Herring
Leonardo da Vinci designed a hang glider as early as 1488; the Montgolfier brothers launched balloons with animals as test pilots (sheep, duck, rooster) in 1782, and balloons were used in the American Civil War and the Boer War; Ferdinand von Zeppelin created the blimp/zeppelin airships; and Otto Lilienthal was the “Glider King.” Of course, it is the Wright brothers who get all the credit for the first manned powered flight but many designers over the years have believed their idea would fly (excuse the pun, please) and some of those ideas today seem downright ridiculous. But who’s to say the ideas of today won’t be the aircraft of the future? In no particular order, consider these aircraft designs:
Langley Aerodrome: First heavier-than-air powered aircraft deemed “capable” of manned flight (1903).
Blériot XI: Monoplane crossed the English Channel (1909).
Wright Flyer: Canard biplane (1903).
Fabre Hydravion: First to take off from water (1910).
Paul Cornu’s helicopter: First to use rotor blades instead of wings (1907).
Taylor Aerocar: Roadable aircraft (1949).
Dornier Do 31: VTOL jet transport aircraft (1967).
Dr. Richard Anderson of Embry Riddle’s Eagle Flight Research Center recently told assembled engineering students that they are ushering the era of urban air mobility. In his talk to incoming students, Anderson said there are more than 140 companies currently investing in hybrid-electric aircraft design. “It’s your turn,” he told the students. “You’re about to change the world. Airplanes are not going to look like they’ve looked for the past 115 years.”
Julie Summers Walker
AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.