Birth of American Soaring Flight: A New Technology


  • Simine Short National Soaring Museum, Elmira, New York 14903


Aerodynamics, Structures, Materials, Design, Training and Safety


SOARING provides man the closest approach to the capabilities of the birds.  For some 4000 years, men looked at soaring birds, longing to imitate them, to fly without the use of an engine or muscular power. In the prehistory of aviation, when no engines were available to sustain an aircraft in the air, soaring was the means for heavier-than-air experimenters to keep their planes in the air for a prolonged period.  So, where and when did soaring start?  Historians and aeronautical engineers tend to agree that Otto Lilienthal of Germany should receive credit for being the first pilot to recognize, attempt and achieve soaring flight, but who can take credit for this in the United States?

1) The technology and practice of soaring flight and the emulation of the feats of the birds has been demonstrated and has become a fact during the past century. As with every field of technological achievement, the evolution of powerless flying is a continuing process.
2) Contemporary literature and photos indicate that William Avery and Augustus Moore Herring, associates of Octave Chanute, were airbome and extending otherwise shorter gliding flights to soaring flights of just over 10 s in September 1896. Possible, but not proven conclusively, was Herring's 48 s soaring flight in October 1896. For them, every second of prolonged flight gave extra time to learn about the mechanics of flight and the art of flying. The first glider flying experiments by the Wright Brothers, prior to December 1903, were a continuation of this evolution process. They succeeded to stretch their flying time to more than one minute with a more manageable glider, which enabled controlled turns. The extra flying time helped them learn how to fly the planes they designed.
3) The Wrights continued their research, improving their aircraft design for better stability and control. As part of these experiments, Orville Wright achieved the 9 min 45 s soaring flight with their 1911 glider.
4) Since then, many devices related to stability and control were first discovered or introduced using gliders. By using motorless craft, stability and control problems can be investigated simply, uninfluenced by turbulence and the effects of power. Methods to improved aerodynamic performance have been particularly studied and explored with and on sailplanes with good results, especially in the increase of aerodynamic efficiency. Sailplanes continue to be used as a practical laboratory tool for low-speed aerodynamic research.
5) In addition to its technological usefulness, the experimenters in gliding and soaring, as early as 1896, recognized the sporting attraction of soaring flight.