There was never a more enthusiastic and consistent student of the problems of flight than Otto Lilienthal, who was born in 1848 at Anklam, Pomerania, and even from his early school-days dreamed and planned the conquest of the air. His practical experiments began when, at the age of thirteen, he and his brother Gustav made wings consisting of wooden framework covered with linen, which Otto attached to his arms, and then ran downhill flapping them. In consequence of possible derision on the part of other boys, Otto confined these experiments for the most part to moonlit nights, and gained from them some idea of the resistance offered by flat surfaces to the air. It was in 1867 that the two brothers began really practical work, experimenting with wings which, from their design, indicate some knowledge of Besnier and the history of his gliding experiments; these wings the brothers fastened to their backs, moving them with their legs after the fashion of one attempting to swim. Before they had achieved any real success in gliding the Franco-German war came as an interruption; both brothers served in this campaign, resuming their experiments in 1871 at the conclusion of hostilities.

The experiments made by the brothers previous to the war had convinced Otto that previous experimenters in gliding flight had failed through reliance on empirical conclusions or else through incomplete observation on their own part, mostly of bird flight. From 1871 onward Otto Lilenthal (Gustav's interest in the problem was not maintained as was his brother's) made what is probably the most detailed and accurate series of observations that has ever been made with regard to the properties of curved wing surfaces. So far as could be done, Lilienthal tabulated the amount of air resistance offered to a bird's wing, ascertaining that the curve is necessary to flight, as offering far more resistance than a flat surface. Cayley, and others, had already stated this, but to Lilienthal belongs the honour of being first to put the statement to effective proof - he made over 2,000 gliding flights between 1891 and the regrettable end of his experiments; his practical conclusions are still regarded as part of the accepted theory of students of flight. In 1889 he published a work on the subject of gliding flight which stands as data for investigators, and, on the conclusions embodied in this work, he began to build his gliders and practice what he had preached, turning from experiment with models to wings that he could use.

It was in the summer of 1891 that he built his first glider of rods of peeled willow, over which was stretched strong cotton fabric; with this, which had a supporting surface of about 100 square feet, Otto Lilienthal launched himself in the air from a spring board, making glides which, at first of only a few feet, gradually lengthened. As his experience of the supporting qualities of the air progressed he gradually altered his designs until, when Pilcher visited him in the spring of 1895, he experimented with a glider, roughly made of peeled willow rods and cotton fabric, having an area of 150 square feet and weighing half a hundredweight. By this time Lilienthal had moved from his springboard to a conical artificial hill which he had had thrown up on level ground at Grosse Lichterfelde, near Berlin. This hill was made with earth taken from the excavations incurred in constructing a canal, and had a cave inside in which Lilienthal stored his machines. Pilcher, in his paper on 'Gliding,' [*] gives an excellent short summary of Lilienthal's experiments, from which the following extracts are taken: -

[*] Aeronautical Classes, No. 5. Royal Aeronautical Society's publications.

'At first Lilienthal used to experiment by jumping off a springboard with a good run. Then he took to practicing on some hills close to Berlin. In the summer of 1892 he built a flat-roofed hut on the summit of a hill, from the top of which he used to jump, trying, of course, to soar as far as possible before landing.... One of the great dangers with a soaring machine is losing forward speed, inclining the machine too much down in front, and coming down head first. Lilienthal was the first to introduce the system of handling a machine in the air merely by moving his weight about in the machine; he always rested only on his elbows or on his elbows and shoulders....

'In 1892 a canal was being cut, close to where Lilienthal lived, in the suburbs of Berlin, and with the surplus earth Lilienthal had a special hill thrown up to fly from. The country round is as flat as the sea, and there is not a house or tree near it to make the wind unsteady, so this was an ideal practicing ground; for practicing on natural hills is generally rendered very difficult by shifty and gusty winds.... This hill is 50 feet high, and conical. Inside the hill there is a cave for the machines to be kept in.... When Lilienthal made a good flight he used to land 300 feet from the centre of the hill, having come down at an angle of 1 in 6; but his best flights have been at an angle of about 1 in 10.

'If it is calm, one must run a few steps down the hill, holding the machine as far back on oneself as possible, when the air will gradually support one, and one slides off the hill into the air. If there is any wind, one should face it at starting; to try to start with a side wind is most unpleasant. It is possible after a great deal of practice to turn in the air, and fairly quickly. This is accomplished by throwing one's weight to one side, and thus lowering the machine on that side towards which one wants to turn. Birds do the same thing - crows and gulls show it very clearly. Last year Lilienthal chiefly experimented with double-surfaced machines. These were very much like the old machines with awnings spread above them.