Otto Lilienthal’s glider

Otto Lilienthal’s glider

The German engineer Otto Lilienthal was the first person to make successful flights with a glider designed by himself.



Otto Lilienthal, hang glider, aviation, gliding, aerodynamics, transportation, technology

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  • What nationality was Otto Lilienthal?
  • When did Otto Lilienthal build the No. 11 model of his glider?
  • Were there photos taken of Otto Lilienthal?
  • Is it true that Lilienthal built his gliders with metal frameworks?
  • Is it true that Lilienthal´s gliders were not used for military purposes?
  • Is it true that Lilienthal originally built wing-flapping gliders?
  • What distance did Lilienthal’s flight cover?
  • How many gliders did Lilienthal build?
  • What type of gliders did Lilienthal build?
  • How did Lilienthal steer his gliders?
  • Is it possible to fly with structures heavier than air?
  • Is it true that the direction of the net force acting on an aeroplane during landing is upwards?
  • Is it true that the Wright brothers used Lilienthal´s notes and results for building their aircraft?
  • Is it true that Lilienthal had never flown because he was afraid of heights?
  • Is it true that Lilienthal died in a crash of one of his gliders?
  • What were Lilienthal’s last words?



Lilienthal’s invention

The Lilienthal brothers realised quite early that the three basic factors of flying were lift, thrust, steering, and they built their first aircraft taking these into account.
Initially they made flapping-wing models, powered by small steam engines, but after several unsuccessful attempts they decided to build gliders. They designed several models before 1874.

Otto Lilienthal (working without his brother after 1890) built his monoplane glider from canvas and wicker rods. He was able to steer the structure by shifting his body weight. He continuously improved his gliders as he gained more and more experience in flying.
He took off by running downwind from an elevated point. Initially his flights covered only 50-100 metres, later up to 350 metres.

He constructed at least 18 models, of which 15 were monoplanes and three were biplanes. His most advanced construction was the No. 11 monoplane model, built in 1895. Eight replicas of this model were built, 2 of which were sold in England.

The greatest disadvantage of his models was the fact that steering was only possible by moving the pilot´s legs to shift weight, which made it difficult to manoeuvre and unprotected against sideward wind.


Conquering the air

The first scientific attempts in the history of aviation were Leonardo da Vinci’s designs. His inventions (for example a parachute and a flapping-wing flying machine) were improved by later inventors.
The first successful flight was carried out by a hot air balloon. The balloon, designed by the French Montgolfier brothers, lifted off in Paris in 1783, though it was tethered. The first free flight was carried out by Pilatre de Rozier.

Later there were attempts to construct flying machines powered by humans. After many failed attempts, inventors designed gliders that used air currents to rise in the air. The first working, piloted glider was designed and built by Sir George Cayley in 1853.

Otto Lilienthal designed and constructed his glider in 1891. This machine became the precursor of modern hang gliders. Lilienthal himself said: ‘To invent an airplane is nothing. To build one is something. But to fly is everything.’

Through Lilienthal’s eyes

A pioneer of aviation

Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896), the German engineer and his brother Gustave were fascinated by flying since his childhood. They made meticulous observations about the flight of birds and built their first structures together.
When his brother gave up experiments after many unsuccessful attempts, Otto Lilienthal continued on his own. He kept making plans and improving his models.
From 1891 he made his first attempts in practice, jumping off from an artificial hill near Berlin (in Lichterfelde Süd), and a few years later he continued his aviation experiments in the Rhinower Mountains. He made over 2,000 flights in his gliders.
On 9 August 1896 his experimental biplane glider stalled and crashed, falling from a height of 15 metres. His spine broke and he died the following day. His legendary last words (but probably quoted incorrectly) prove his passionate vocation: ‘Sacrifices must be made’.

Otto Lilienthal


  • wire brace
  • wooden frame
  • wing
  • tail
  • canvas



Otto Lilienthal was a German engineer who lived and worked in the second half of the 19th century. Lilienthal and his brother Gustave studied the flight of birds and thereby recognised the three basic factors of flying (lift, thrust, and steering).
Initially they made flapping-wing models, but after several unsuccessful attempts they decided to build gliders. They designed several models before 1874.

Even after his brother abandoned the project, Otto Lilienthal continued making plans, building gliders and flying by himself.
He developed at least 18 gliders from canvas and wicker rods. He started his flights by running against the wind from an elevated point; after several improvements made on his gliders, he managed to fly up to 300 metres.

The monoplane glider shown in the animation was steered by shifting body weight. But as this was only possible by moving the pilot’s legs, the structure was difficult to manoeuvre.
Built in 1891, Lilienthal’s glider, became the precursor to modern hang gliders. Lilienthal himself said: ‘To invent an airplane is nothing. To build one is something. But to fly is everything.’

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