To invent an airplane is nothing. To build one is something. To fly is everything… ~ Otto Lilienthal
You’ll have to forgive my use of yet another hackneyed platitude, but I want to “give credit where credit is due”. When it comes to aviation and home built aircraft, I have to tip my hat to that fearless aviation enthusiast “Otto” and his contributions to aeronautics. Often, while working in my airplane work shop in the back yard, I am amazed to think of his daring accomplishments and what he might have achieved had his flying experimentation not been cut short by his untimely death, by its own hand in one of his gliders.
I enjoy working on my airplane with modern tools, cheap accessible electricity, and the hindsight of a hundred years of aviation knowledge to draw from. Otto on the other had none of the luxuries. He studied birds in Europe during the 1800’s and fashioned successful flying gliders with little more than raw materials. Then he would go out and build his own hill of dirt, from which he would launch himself off with no reliable expectation of the results, sometimes successfully, often crashing, only to rebuild and fly again. Back in my military flying circles we would say Otto had “NAFOD”, No Apparent Fear of Death. We owe as much to his bravado as his brilliance. Unfortunately, Otto died in the late 1800’s when on a flight, his glider apparently stalled and crashed, just when the world was beginning to take notice. Today’s safety investigators would have a field day, no doubt pointing to modern concepts such as complacency (he became too comfortable flying his gliders) or pilot error (he did not adequately account for winds). Luckily for us, early pioneers such as Otto were driven by an indomitable spirit and thirst for aviation, lest they be encumbered by things like danger and self-preservation.
Not only was Otto’s glider flying experimentation advanced, it greatly contributed to the development of wing aerodynamics. Of all the men who attacked the flying problem in the 19th century, according to Wilbur Wright, “Otto Lilienthal was easily the most important". With over two thousand flights under his belt, it is likely Otto would have continued to influence aviation for a long time. It is on the backs of men such as Otto, we are able to build and fly our aircraft today. I believe the spirit of these early pioneers lives on in each airplane we build.