The First Human Who Flew Like a Bird

By Elmira Akhmetova

The first man who have flown like a bird on sky in his home-made aircraft lived much earlier than the Wright Brothers (Orville 1871-1948 and Wilbur 1867-1912) or even Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) or Leonardo Da Vinci. He was Abbas Ibn Firnas, a Muslim scientist from Muslim Spain.

Although the Wright Brothers were invertors of the first practical fixed-wing and powered airplane, an idea of flying existed since the beginning of humanity. Humans dreamed to fly like a bird. Myths, legends and images of flying people are not seldom in human history. The oldest known depiction of human flight is dated between 2350-2150 BC. The 4 cm high clay seal from Sumerian civilization can be seen in the Museum of Ancient Antiques in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. It reveals a 10 am wide clay relief showing the shepherd Etana riding an eagle.

In mythology of ancient civilizations, humans attributed the ability to fly to their deities, mythical figures and demons. The ability of the supreme beings expressed the dream, the trial and the urge of humans to fly themselves.

In order to fly, they needed wings. So humans over and over again tried to create wings like the wings of birds or insects. The man who gave us wings and was able to fly in his flying machine in the 9th century was Abbas Ibn Firnas, a Muslim scientist from Andalusia (Muslim Spain).

Abbas Abu Al-Qasim Ibn Firnas Ibn Wirdas Al-Takurini was born in 810 in a Spanish city today called Ronda. It was the time when the best engineers, architects and scientists of the world were all gathered at the leading universities and learning centres of Andalusia and significantly contributed to scientific development and the rise of European civilization. Ibn Firnas was one of them and devoted his entire life to science. He wrote several books on mathematics, physics, astronomy and engineering. He is the person who made a history of aviation as he made first controlled flight in human history.

Ibn Firnas learnt from his life-long experience. His first flight took place in 852. He wrapped himself in a coat that was reinforced with wooden pieces, and jumped off from the minaret of Cordoba’s largest mosque. In this time, Ibn Firnas failed in his attempt, but was lucky enough to be flying low. His coat served him as a parachute and he fell down slowly landing without any major injuries.

For next 23 years, Ibn Firnas devoted himself to studying birds, the design of their wings and improving his flying machine. His new design appears to be a hang-glider which had two sets of wings to adjust altitude and direction. The wings were made from eagle feather and the surface covering from silk. In 875, at the age of 65, Ibn Firnas made a history of flying.

He jumped from the Jabal Al-Arus Mountain. Before flying, he gave a speech to the large crowd gathered to observe this historical moment. Ibn Firnas said: “This moment, I shall say good bye to you all. I shall do so by moving my wings up and down, which should normally result in me flying like a bird. If everything goes well, I shall be able to fly back to you safely.”

In this time, his aircraft worked: he jumped and was able to fly like a bird for at least ten minutes. When Ibn Firnas became tired of flying, he wanted to land but could not simply because his aircraft, in difference from birds, did not have a tail! He had focused all of his energy in studying the mechanics of flying and taking off but neglected the mechanics of landing. He crashed and broke his back.  But he understood that birds landed on the root of their tail.

According to some sources, Ibn Firnas might make his third attempt, a final flight, with adding a tail to his aircraft. Yet, landing was unsuccessful, he crashed and died at the age of 77.

Ibn Firnas wrote a book to describe the details of his aircraft. This book, along with his other books, were destroyed when Muslims lost the rule in Spain. But the details of his aircraft design survived in later sources in Europe. His home-made aircraft undoubtedly been a great source of inspiration for later scientists including Leonardo Da Vinci. Amazingly, due to Ibn Firnas’s experiments, Da Vinci already knew that the tail was very important for a safe landing.

Today to honour Ibn Firnas and his contributions in aviation, the crater on the moon is named by his name, as well as the Ibn Firnas Airport in Baghdad and one of the bridges over the Guadalquivir River in Cordoba.