33 Thrilling Images From The Wild Early Days Of Flight

Published February 27, 2017
Updated January 16, 2018
First Flight Wright
Orville Wright pilots the Wright Flyer as his brother, Wilbur, runs alongside just after takeoff at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina on December 17, 1903.

This historic takeoff marked the first successful flight of a manned, powered, heavier-than-air craft in history.
John T. Daniels/Library of Congress

Whitehead On Ground
German-American aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead (right, with his daughter in his lap) sits beside his "Number 21" flying machine in 1901.

On August 14th of that year, Whitehead reportedly piloted a controlled, powered flight of this heavier-than-air craft in Fairfield, Connecticut.

If true, this would give Whitehead (and not the Wright Brothers) the title of "first in flight." However, the claim remains disputed to this day.
Valerian Gribayedoff/Wikimedia Commons

Albatros Flying Machines
Revolutionary French builder Jean-Marie Le Bris stands inside his Albatros II flying machine in Brest, France, 1868.

Some credit Le Bris with making history's first glider flights all the way back in 1856. A development on the craft used to make those flights, the glider pictured here achieved little success as an aircraft but nevertheless stands as the first one to ever be photographed, according to some sources.
Wikimedia Commons

Otto Glider Flying Machines
German "flying man" Otto Lilienthal stands suited in his ornithopter (an aircraft that flies via flapping wings) at Fliegeberg — a nearly 200-foot-tall hill that he constructed in order to take off from during his flight experiments — in Berlin on August 16, 1894.Ottomar Anschütz/Lilienthal Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Glider In Flight
Otto Lilienthal pilots one of his groundbreaking gliding crafts in Derwitz, Germany, 1891.

Lilienthal's early success in achieving what some say were history's first true gliding flights inspired, among others, the Wright brothers. As Wilbur once said, "Of all the men who attacked the flying problem in the 19th century, Otto Lilienthal was easily the most important."
Carl Kassner/Wikimedia Commons

Lilienthal Glider
Otto Lilienthal performs one of his gliding tests, circa 1895.

On August 10th of the following year, Lilienthal's glider stalled mid-flight near Gollenberg, Germany, causing him to fall 50 feet to his death.
Library of Congress

Multiplane
The 1904 Multiplane built by British builder Horatio Frederick Phillips.

Although his crafts weren't very successful, Phillips achieved some fame for building multiplanes with far more wing surfaces than what one would find on most planes then and now. This 1904 model, for example, featured 21 wings.
Wikimedia Commons

1907 Flyer
Three years later, Phillips built his 1907 multiplane, featuring 200 individual wing surfaces. The machine could fly for 500 feet, which wasn't enough to encourage further efforts from Phillips, who left the business soon after.Wikimedia Commons

Ornithopter
An ornithopter designed by American writer, scientist, and inventor Harry La Verne Twining. Date unspecified.Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Cody In Cockpit
Samuel Franklin Cody, American-born innovator in the fields of piloted kites and planes, flew the first powered, heavier-than-air craft in Great Britain on October 16, 1908.Paul Townsend/Flickr

Cody Kite Basket
Demonstration of a two-person kite designed by Cody for use by the British Army Royal Engineers Balloon Section. Hampshire, England, circa 1903-1913.

Such kites were intended for use when high wind speeds (above 20 miles per hour) prevented the use of observation balloons. The kite could ascend 2,500 feet in the right conditions.
Royal Engineers/Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

Cody Native American
Cody sits inside one of his flying machines — accompanied by a Native American, likely part of the Wild West stage shows with which this showman was involved — in Hampshire , England, circa 1910-1912.Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

View From Front
Cody demonstrates the pioneering passenger-carrying capabilities of his Cody Aircraft Mark IIE (nicknamed Omnibus) in Hampshire, England, circa 1910-1912.Royal Engineers/Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

Farman Onlookers
A flying machine made by the French Farman company takes flight at an unspecified location, 1909.
br> Founded by brothers Richard, Henri, and Maurice Farman, the company designed more than 200 different types of aircraft during the early years of flight.
Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Eiffel Tower
Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont pilots one of his airships around the Eiffel Tower on July 13, 1901.

After doing pioneering work in lighter-than-air crafts, Santos-Dumont piloted Europe's first flight in a heavier-than-air craft in 1906.

Because he believed that aviation would bring peace and prosperity to the world, he declined to patent his breakthroughs, instead publishing his designs for all to share.
Wikimedia Commons

Dumont Flyer
Santos-Dumont's 14-bis (also known as the "bird of prey") sits at an unspecified location on November 12, 1906.Gallica/Wikimedia Commons

Santos Bis
A few weeks earlier, on October 23, Santos-Dumont piloted the 14-bis (pictured here in July, 1906) in Paris in what was the first flight of a powered, heavier-than-air craft in Europe. Some claim that certain technicalities having to do with the Wright brothers' takeoff method make this 1906 attempt the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air craft worldwide.Wikimedia Commons

Brady Intrepid
Union Army personnel inflate the reconnaissance balloon Intrepid so that it can watch over the Battle of Fair Oaks near Gaines Mill, Virginia during the Civil War on June 1, 1862.

Many credit the Intrepid with helping the Union Army to win this battle over the Confederates. Throughout the war, hundreds of balloons were put into use.
Mathew Brady/Library of Congress

Turned Over
One of the Wright brothers' flying machines turns over with Orville inside at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, 1911.U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

Wheeled Machine
In 1906, Romanian inventor Traian Vuia sits in his Vuia I plane, by many accounts the first to take off by first accelerating with wheels along a roadway as well as the craft that influenced the invention of the monoplane.Wikimedia Commons

French Airship
The French military reconnaissance airship La République leaves Moisson, France, 1907.

The airship's fatal crash two years later helped convince militaries around the world to move away from airships and toward airplanes, then just in their infancy.
Library of Congress

Farman In Flight
One of the flying machines of the pioneering French manufacturer Farman takes off, circa early 1900s.Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Huge Balloon
A German military observation balloon launches from Équancourt, France on September 22, 1916, during World War I.

This period marked the zenith of balloon usage for military observation purposes.
Europeana/Wikimedia Commons

Boat Flyer
American aviator Tony Jannus (right) pilots an early biplane, 1914.

Jannus used "flying boats" like these to make history as both the pilot of the first plane out of which a parachute jump was made (1912) and as the pilot of the world's first commercial airplane flight, which ran from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa, Florida on January 1, 1914.

Two years later, Jannus died when the plane he was using to train Russian military pilots crashed into the Black Sea.
Wikimedia Commons

Ambulance Plane
Army personnel demonstrate the ability of Samuel Franklin Cody's Mark VI aircraft to serve as an ambulance plane, most likely near Aldershot, England, 1913.Royal Engineers/Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

Bleriot Flying Machine
French inventor Louis Blériot sits in one of his early flying machines inside his workshop, circa 1909.

Blériot would soon achieve fame by making the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air craft as well as making the first true monoplane.
Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Dirigible
The Norge airship sits in England, circa 1915-1930.

On May 12, 1926, the Norge made history as the first aircraft to travel to the North Pole.
Pacific and Atlantic Photos, Inc./Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress

On Road
A Herring-Curtiss flying machine sits on the ground in Mineola, New York, circa 1910-1920.

Founded by pioneering American aviators Augustus Moore Herring and Glenn Curtiss in 1909, the Herring-Curtiss Company became one of the most important aircraft manufacturers during the early years of flight.
Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Paulhan Flight
French aviator Louis Paulhan pilots his flying machine during an air show, most likely at the historic Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne festival in Reims, France during August 1909.

Paulhan set many height and speed records in his day and frequently clashed with the patent-holding Wright brothers over the legality of his practice of putting on air shows for profit.
Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Soldiers In Balloon
Two British soldiers sit in an observation balloon, circa 1900-1914.Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

Thos Baldwin
Early balloon and airplane pioneer Thomas Scott Baldwin takes off in his "Red Devil" aircraft, circa 1910-1915.

Baldwin made history as the first pilot to fly over the Mississippi River and later built aircraft for the U.S. Navy and helped lead American military efforts in aviation during World War I.
Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Wright Glider Flying
Wilbur Wright pilots a glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on October 10, 1902.Library of Congress

Wright Wreck Scene
A Wright Flyer crashes at Fort Myer, Virginia on September 17, 1908, killing passenger Thomas Selfridge and merely injuring pilot Orville Wright, and marking the first fatal accident in the history of airplanes.C.H. Claudy/U.S. National Archives/Wikimedia Commons

After the Wright brothers made the first sustained and controlled flight of a heavier-than-air craft near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903, humanity's race to the skies hardly ended. Quite the contrary, it heated up more than ever.

In the wake of the brothers' breakthrough — not unlike the years before as well — dozens of daredevil pilots, engineers, and manufacturers tried out hundreds of methods to put humans in the air. There were gliders, wingsuits, balloons, airships, flying darts, and even stranger contraptions whose names can hardly explain their functions.

Many of these attempts went nowhere — rough drafts left on the scrapheap of history. But plenty of them contributed to the methods of flight we take for granted today.

So while we may now have little fascination left with flight, the photos above will take you back to a freewheeling time when "pilots" and "airplanes" were "aviators" and "flying machines," when flight was still shiny and new, when simply taking off and landing was anything but a sure thing.


Fascinated by this look at vintage flying machines? Next, see which legendary innovators join the Wright brothers among famous inventors who don't actually deserve credit for their most famous breakthrough. Then, take flight beyond our atmosphere and have a look at some vintage NASA photos from the glory days of space travel.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.