Science Milestones: Pioneers of Flight

Interest in aviation (design, development, production, operation and flight of heavier-than-air machines) can be traced back as far as Leonardo da Vinci. However, real progress toward achieving flight in heavier-than-air machines only began in the middle of the 19th century. Follow in the footsteps of the pioneers of flight, Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright Brothers, with fun hands-on activities exploring aerodynamics.

“Its a dream of every human to fly and reach the sky; either in terms of glory or literally. This aspiration to be in the wind and above all gives thrill and when you cant do so, you resort to objects and make them fly.”

pioneers in flight

Leonardo da Vinci


leonardodavinciLeonardo da Vinci, whose intellectual range and capacity for action have been equalled by few, was born in Tuscany on April 15, 1452.  He is best remembered as the painter of the Mona Lisa (c. 1503) and The Last Supper (c. 1495). He is equally famous for his astonishing talents in architecture, sculpture, music, engineering, geology, hydraulics and the military arts, all with success, and in his spare time doodled sketches for working parachutes and flying machines like helicopters that resembled inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

He made detailed drawings of human anatomy which are still highly regarded today. Leonardo, cleverly, wrote notebook entries in mirror script, a trick which kept many of his observations from being widely known until decades after his death.

Though credit for the invention of the first practical parachute usually goes to Sebastien Lenormand in 1783, Leonardo da Vinci actually conceived the parachute idea a few hundred years earlier. His design consists of sealed linen cloth held open by a pyramid of wooden poles, about seven metres long. The original design was scribbled by da Vinci in a notebook in 1483.

“If a man have a tent made of linen of which the apertures (openings) have all been stopped up, and it be twelve braccia (about 23 feet) across and twelve in depth, he will be able to throw himself down from any great height without suffering any injury.”

Like many of da Vinci’s ideas, the invention was never actually built or tested by Leonardo himself. But, in 2000, daredevil Adrian Nichols constructed a prototype based on da Vinci’s design and tested it. Despite skepticism from experts, da Vinci’s design worked as intended and Nichols even noted that it had a smoother ride than the modern parachute.

Bring it Home – Experiments with Parachutes

  • Get a stopwatch and time how long it takes for an object to fall with and without a parachute. Do several drops and see if the time is always the same or if it varies somewhat.
  • Using the same object, compare the results with a small and a large parachute.
  • Using the same size parachute, compare results using two or more different objects.
  • Try lengthening or shortening the length of the suspension lines. Try changing the number of suspension lines.
  • Try different shapes for your parachute (round, oval, rectangular, square, etc.) and different fabric materials.
  • See Science Projects with Toy Parachutes for more information
  • Leonardo da Vinci’s Parachute Design – Power Point Presentation
  • If you want to explore da Vinci in more depth, you’ll love Joan’s A Birthday Celebration: Leonardo da Vinci, art and invention at Unschool Rules.

Wilbur Wright



The Wright brothers were two of seven children born to Milton Wright and Susan Catherine Koerner. Wilbur Wright was born near Millville, Indiana on April 16, 1867 and his brother Orville on August 19, 1871. Together, they are credited with inventing and building the world’s first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, on December 17, 1903.  But they didn’t start off with airplanes. The American brothers decided in 1899 to master gliding before attempting powered flight.

First, the Wrights built and flew several kites, testing and perfecting their new ideas about a flight control system. In 1900, they used this system on a man-carrying glider for the first time. Before they risked their own necks, they flew the glider as a kite, controlling it from the ground. They flew three biplane (has two wings, one above the other) gliders from the sand-hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and by 1902 had developed a fully practical biplane glider.

Their great innovation was that their glider could be  balanced and controlled in every direction, by combining the actions of warping (twisting) the wings and turning the rudder for lateral control, and by using a device called an elevator for up and down movements without any need for the pilot to swing his torso and legs in order to control the flight direction. All flight control today has been developed from this 1902 Wright glider.

Bring it Home ~ Experiments with Kites & Gliders

Science Milestones

Visit my Science Milestones page to learn more about scientists whose discoveries and advancements have made a significant difference in our lives or who have advanced our understanding of the world around us.

To find out about more people born in April hop on over to iHomeschool Network’s April birthdays page.

Discover Aerodynamics with Simple Kites

As we expand upon the vision of our Roots & Shoots club, we have begun to incorporate more involvement from the other parents … something I am very excited about.  Upon request of the kids, one of the first themes we have begun to explore is Aerodynamics & Flight.

We began with simple kites last week and each parent brought an activity or snack to share.  I read aloud a brief history of kites and touched upon the prevalence of kites in Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures.  We then began construction.

We had several simple kites to choose from but opted to begin with one made from a single sheet of 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper.  This style also required a small wooden dowel or straw for strength (you can see in the picture above the kids cutting the dowel to size) as well as holes cut in the wing tips for the string.  This wiki-page gives detailed instructions, How to Make a Fast Kite with One Sheet of Paper.

At one point, the hole punch got jammed with paper so I attempted to dislodge it and accidentally sliced the tip of my thumb with the scissors.  Dumb mistake.  Justin – our awesome homeschool dad – came to my rescue, applying pressure to stop the bleeding while my little buddy found the band-aids.  My blunder provided an impromptu lesson in first-aide!

The second kite we made were Asian-inspired carp kites made from tissue paper (Koinobori). To make the koinobori, we simply folded a piece of tissue paper in half. Students drew the carp shape, making sure the fin was opposite of the fold. They then cut it out, opened it up, and drew the other half of the carp as symmetrical as possible. They were encouraged to color it with oil pastels.  Pipe cleaners was adhered along the mouth with tacky glue. Glue was also used to glue the rest of the fish together.  The mouth was kept open by bending the pipe cleaners. They then used a hole punch to punch a hole in the center of the mouth to attach the string. Upon completion of the kites … they kiddos were anxious to get outside and fly them.  Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate and there was little wind.

We had such a good time – we didn’t get a chance to make all the kites we had planned for.  We will thereby revisit kites again next week.  Our vision is to then explore ‘lighter than air’ (hot air balloons), airplanes and eventually rockets.   I can’t wait to share all that we have planned … the field trips and special guests.