A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Thirty Two


Otto Lilienthal (1848 – 96)

The latest inductee to our Hall of Fame is the Prussian aeronautical pioneer, Otto Lilienthal.

Growing up in Anklam which is in Pomerania Otto and his brother, Gustav, were fascinated by birds and the concept of manned flight. As boys, and rather like the Greek mythological pair, Daedalus and Icarus, they experimented with strap-on wings but, perhaps fortunately, were unable to achieve sufficient levitation to fly.

Undaunted, however, Otto, after seeing military service in the Franco-Prussian War, continued his interest in nascent aeronautics, publishing in 1889 his famous investigation into bird flight as the basis for aviation, Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst. Otto was particularly fascinated by the flight pattern of white storks and his detailed investigations convinced him that a wing-flapping movement was the key to successful human flight.

Meanwhile, his day job was running his own company which manufactured boilers and steam engines. He devised a small engine which worked on a system of tubular boilers, much safer than many of the engines operating at the time, and this success game him the economic freedom to carry on his aeronautical experiments.

During the early 1890s our hero cracked on at pace developing monoplanes, wing-flapping planes and biplanes. Essentially his aircraft were gliders, carefully designed to allow him to change the centre of gravity by shifting his body. However, if they caught an unexpected current of air they were difficult to control, mainly because he held the glider by his shoulders which meant only his legs and lower body could move. Throughout his career he applied for and received around 25 patents.

To begin with Otto used to jump off a small hill near Steglitz in Berlin, building a hut in the shape of a tower on the top to create a 109 metre high jumping-off point and, incidentally, somewhere to store his apparatus. In 1894 he decided to build his own artificial hill called Fliegerberg which was 15 metres tall and allowed him to jump irrespective of the wind direction.

Otto’s fame spread. There were regularly crowds who assembled to watch his experiments at Lichterfelde and, internationally, he became acknowledged as a father of flight. Over his relatively short flying career he made around 2,000 flights, although his first recorded jump took him a distance of just over 25 metres. In 1893 at the Rhinow Hills he was able to cover a distance fo 250 metres, a record that was still standing at the time of his demise.

Inevitably, as you would expect of an inductee, his end came in rather spectacular fashion. On 9th August 1896 he went as usual to the Rhinow Hills and on his first jump covered his usual 250 metres. However, disaster struck on his fourth glide. The machine pitched headlong towards the earth. Otto was unable to pull the machine out of its decline and trapped in his glider fell to the earth from a distance of around 50 feet. He was transported by horse-drawn cart to Stolln for a medical examination where he was found to have fractured his vertebrae. Passing in and out of consciousness Otto hung on for 36 hours but even the ministrations of one of the world’s most eminent surgeons in Berlin couldn’t save him. His last words were, “Opfer müssen gebracht werden!” (Sacrifices must be made!).

Otto, for your experiments into flight and your stoicism at the end, you are a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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