In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ successful achievement of the first manned, controlled, powered flight, David Tschanz reports on Ibn Firnas’ first glider flight some 1100 years ago.
When did man first fly? About 1100 years ago, if somewhat sketchy accounts are true. It was then that the first, albeit short, glider flight is reported to have occurred in Muslim Spain. Stories of humans flying are probably as old as humans themselves. About 3,400 years ago, an old legend tells how Daedalus fashioned wings of feathers and wax so his son Icarus could fly from prison on Crete to safety in Sicily. When Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he fell to his death.
While this tale was a cautionary fable about recklessness, there were undoubtedly a number of attempts to take to the sky. Some certainly ended as spectacular — and fatal — failures. Others left the erstwhile aviators with ruffled dignities and injuries to testify incomplete and error-ridden engineering. Regardless, they reflected one of mankind’s enduring dreams and a stubborn refusal to accept the belief that “man will never fly.”
Ibn Firnas Glides Over Cordoba
Among those who refused to accept this belief was Abbas Ibn Firnas. One of the earliest scholars to come from Cordoba in Muslim Spain (Andalusia), he was a typically eclectic thinker of the time, with a broad range of knowledge and interests. Born in Korah Takrna near Ronda, Ibn Firnas studied chemistry, physics, and astronomy. He originally came to Cordoba to teach music, which at the time was actually a branch of mathematical theory. During experiments, he managed to manufacture glass from sand and stone, and he is also credited with inventing a time measuring device called Al-Maqata.
The citizens of Cordoba had seen persons attempt to fly before. In 852 a Muslim inventor, Armen Firman, constructed a voluminous cloak, intending to use the garment-like wings to glide. Jumping from a tower in Cordoba, Spain, Firman survived with only minor injuries because his outfit caught enough air in its
folds to break his fall. While his attempt to fly was a failure, Firman had invented a primitive version of the parachute.
About 875, Abbas Ibn Firnas built a flying apparatus placing feathers on a wooden frame — creating the first documented record of a very primitive glider. One of the two surviving versions of his flight states, “Having constructed the final version of his glider, to celebrate its success he invited the people of Cordoba to come and witness his flight. People watched from a nearby mountain as he flew some distance, but then the glider plummeted to the ground causing him to injure his back…”
The second account adds that, after failing to land successfully, Ibn Firnas claimed that he had not noticed how birds use their tails to land and that he had forgotten the tail on his flying apparatus. The back injury prevented Ibn Firnas from trying again. Grounded, he went on to create a mechanized planetarium with revolving planets that also simulated thunder and lightning, and evolved a formula for manufacturing artificial crystals. Soon after in 888 however, he died — primarily as a result of an ongoing struggle with his back injury from the flight.
Flights of Fancy or Experience?
Word of Ibn Firnas’ flight, despite its spectacular failure, spread outside of Spain. What now becomes interesting is the new stories that follow and how they build on one another. Ibn Firnas’ basic failure to sustain flight was because he neglected to include a tail. By 885 a new story was being told by the Vikings. Their hero, Wayland, fashioned feathered wings to escape an island prison, much like Daedaklus and Icarus. When his brother Egil tested them he crashed because he’d reportedly failed to launch himself into the wind.
These insights converge in a story told by the twelfth-century English historian William of Malmesbury. He writes about an event in 1002 involving the Anglo-Saxon monk, Eilmer, of Wiltshire Abbey:
Eilmer … was a man learned for those times … and in his youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze on the summit of a tower,
he flew for more than the distance of a furlong. But, agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by awareness of his rashness, he fell, broke his legs, and was lame ever after. He himself used to say that the cause of his failure was forgetting to put a tail on the back part.
The story of Eilmer’s 220-yard glider flight has eerie similarities to the older tales, especially Ibn Firnas’. But, like each of the older stories, Eilmer’s adds one more valuable bit of knowledge towards solving the riddle of flight. If Firnas failed because he hadn’t given himself a tail to land on, and Egil crashed because he didn’t launch his glider into the wind, Eilmer failed because his glider didn’t have a tail to provide lateral stability.
But no one was ready to give up. Roger Bacon tried and failed. Leonardo Da Vinci’s spectacular crash from the bridge in Florence led to his discovery that the shape of the wing was crucial to a bird’s ability to remain airborne. In 1701, a man from the Celebi family was rewarded 1,000 dinars for his flight across
the Bosphorus in Turkey.
The conviction that man could fly gained flesh and blood as experience accumulated. Finally the Wright Brothers added their chapter during a blustery windy day 100 years ago this coming December. This time success was backed with photos and documents. In doing so, they made it clear that the old legends were
more than wishful flights of mere fancy or the dreams of madmen.
In Qatar, the administrators of Doha International Airport have named their new Airport Management System “FIRNAS.” A statue has been built on the way to the Baghdad International Airport to honor Ibn Firnas. He is commemorated on a Libyan postal stamp, and a crater on the moon has been named after him.
By David Tschanz
Poore, Daniel. A History of Early Flight. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1952
Smithsonian Institution. Manned Flight. Pamphlet 1990
David Tschanz is a medical/military historian currently based in Saudi Arabia. He is also an epidemiologist, web developer, editor and demographer. The article was first published in 2003.