Otto Lilienthal – Bird Man

Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) was convinced that humans could fly by reproducing the flapping flight of birds. He grew up watching storks, close relatives of the one shown below, fly and built his first pair of wings before he was 15 years old. He later became a serious student of flight and in 1889 published a […]

Wilbur Wright and the Buzzard

The early gliders made by the Wright brothers often crashed when buffeted by wind. Wilbur spent many hours watching the flight of Turkey Vultures (buzzards – below). These birds are masters of aerodynamic stability. They soar and turn for minutes on end— often without so much as a wing flap—catching rising air and managing shifting […]

Planes Copying Birds

Aircraft designers have borrowed many of the features that evolved during 150 million years of bird flight. This is known as bio-inspiration. An early example of bio-inspiration was the airfoil shape (see here). By 1920, aircraft also started to stow their landing gear to reduce drag just like birds. In 1980, upturned wing tips appeared […]


The wings of jet airplanes started to look different in the late 1980s. Instead of the abrupt “sawn off” tip of the Boeing 707, narrow upturned tips called winglets were introduced. The wings of many birds—such as the Caspian Tern (below)—show similar shapes during flight. In both birds and airplanes, the winglet increases lift and […]


Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was fascinated by the possibility that humans might fly like birds. Some of his musings on the subject are collected in the “Codex on the Flight of Birds” , eighteen handwritten double-sided pages in Leonardo’s unique mirror script. Written in 1505-1506, and once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Codex is now in […]