Andalusian polymath Abbas Ibn #Firnas dreamt of reaching the sky, and in the 9th century, he became the first human to fly with a heavier-than-air machine.
In 1903, the Wright brothers’ successfully achieved the first powered flight in human history, seen as the starting point of modern aviation. However, over a thousand years before Orville and Wilbur Wright, a remarkable polymath and engineer named Abbas Ibn Firnas dared to challenge gravity and became the first human to fly with a heavier-than-air machine.
Born in the 9th century in Izn-Rand-Onda, Al Andalus, present-day Ronda, Spain, Abbas Ibn Firnas spent most of his adult life in the Emirate of Cordoba, a major center of learning during the Umayyad Caliphate.
In the early 9th century, Ibn Firnas is said to have been inspired by Armen Firman, an observer who allegedly had constructed wings made of wooden planks wrapped in silk and bird feathers. Firman’s daring leap from the tallest mosque minaret in Qurtuba with his makeshift awnings, though ultimately unsuccessful, sparked Ibn Firnas’ fascination with the idea of human flight.
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A leap of faith
Years of meticulous study followed as Ibn Firnas observed flight patterns of various birds and objects. Armed with this knowledge, he constructed his own flying machine, equipped with wings fashioned from silk, wood, and real feathers. At the age of 65, Ibn Firnas stood at the precipice of Yemen’s Jabal Al-Arus mountain and took a leap of faith.
As he soared through the air, Ibn Firnas must have experienced an exhilaration that no human had felt before. Historians estimate that his flight lasted for approximately 10 minutes before a less-than-graceful crash landing. Despite the rough descent, he survived and lived for another 12 years. It was during this time that he realized the critical importance of balanced flight and the mechanics of landing.
Ibn Firnas’ observation of bird flight and his own experiences led to a groundbreaking insight – the collaborative work between tail and wings for a slow and controlled landing. This realization became a cornerstone in the development of the ornithopter, an aircraft that mimics bird flight by flapping its wings. His detailed diagrams of flying machines would prove invaluable to aviation engineering in the late 20th century.