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 book called Birdflight as the Basis for Aviation.

Maguari Stork  (Ciconia maguari) ). Pantanal, Brazil. July. Photographer: Peter Cavanagh

Maguari Stork (Ciconia maguari) ). Pantanal, Brazil. July. Photographer: Peter Cavanagh

In the machine above, Lilienthal tested the (incorrect) theory that bird wings “pressed down” on the air to obtain lift.

In the machine above, Lilienthal tested the (incorrect) theory that bird wings “pressed down” on the air to obtain lift.

Lilienthal about to launch on one of his flapping-wing fliers in 1891. Reproduced with permission of the Otto Lilienthal Museum, Anklam, Germany.

Lilienthal about to launch on one of his flapping-wing fliers in 1891.
Reproduced with permission of the Otto Lilienthal Museum, Anklam, Germany.

Lilienthal had designs for onboard motors and could have been the first to achieve sustained, powered flight. But this was not to be. On August 8, 1896 he stalled while flying a glider and died of injuries sustained two days later. His tombstone reads: “Sacrifices must be made”.

LEARN MORE

KIDS QUESTION: In the museum exhibit we asked: Do airplane wings flap like bird wings?

The answer is: No, airplane wings are fixed.
The flapping of bird wings generates thrust for propulsion. In non-gliding airplanes an engine generates thrust. The rotors of a helicopter have been compared to bird wings in their action.