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Many cultures have built devices that travel through the air, from the earliest projectiles such as stones and spears, the boomerang in Australia, the hot air Kongming lantern, and kites. There are early legends of human flight such as the story of Icarus, and Jamshid in Persian myth, and later, somewhat more credible claims of short-distance human flights appear, such as the flying automaton of Archytas of Tarentum (428–347 BC), the winged flights of Abbas Ibn Firnas (810–887), Eilmer of Malmesbury (11th century), and the hot-air Passarola of Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão (1685–1724).
The modern age of aviation began with the first untethered human lighter-than-air flight on November 21, 1783, in a hot air balloon designed by the Montgolfier brothers. The practicality of balloons was limited because they could only travel downwind. It was immediately recognized that a steerable, or dirigible, balloon was required. Jean-Pierre Blanchard flew the first human-powered dirigible in 1784 and crossed the English Channel in one in 1785.
In 1799 Sir George Cayley set forth the concept of the modern airplane as a fixed-wing flying machine with separate systems for lift, propulsion, and control. Early dirigible developments included machine-powered propulsion (Henri Giffard, 1852), rigid frames (David Schwarz, 1896), and improved speed and maneuverability (Alberto Santos-Dumont, 1901)
While there are many competing claims for the earliest powered, heavier-than-air flight, the most widely-accepted date is December 17, 1903 by the Wright brothers. The Wright brothers were the first to fly in a powered and controlled aircraft. Previous flights were gliders (control but no power) or free flight (power but no control), but the Wright brothers combined both, setting the new standard in aviation records. Following this, the widespread adoption of ailerons rather than wing warping made aircraft much easier to control, and only a decade later, at the start of World War I, heavier-than-air powered aircraft had become practical for reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and even attacks against ground positions.
Aircraft began to transport people and cargo as designs grew larger and more reliable. In contrast to small non-rigid blimps, giant rigid airships became the first aircraft to transport passengers and cargo over great distances. The best known aircraft of this type were manufactured by the German Zeppelin company.
The most successful Zeppelin was the Graf Zeppelin. It flew over one million miles, including an around-the-world flight in August 1929. However, the dominance of the Zeppelins over the airplanes of that period, which had a range of only a few hundred miles, was diminishing as airplane design advanced. The "Golden Age" of the airships ended on May 6, 1937 when the Hindenburg caught fire, killing 36 people. Although there have been periodic initiatives to revive their use, airships have seen only niche application since that time.
Great progress was made in the field of aviation during the 1920s and 1930s, such as Charles Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight in 1927, and Charles Kingsford Smith's transpacific flight the following year. One of the most successful designs of this period was the Douglas DC-3, which became the first airliner that was profitable carrying passengers exclusively, starting the modern era of passenger airline service. By the beginning of World War II, many towns and cities had built airports, and there were numerous qualified pilots available. The war brought many innovations to aviation, including the first jet aircraft and the first liquid-fueled rockets.
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