Before The BMAA . Pre 1909

The first edition of Berger-Burr's provided a snapshot of what the sport was like in 1983 and also included some obsolete but historically important machines. What it did not do, however, was to put these machines in perspective, to explain the evolution of the world-wide movement which produced them - an ommission we were determined to remedy for the second edition. What was needed, we decided, was something to bring the reader up to that 1983 datum.

However, when we sat down to write what we believe is the first English-language history of the sport, we found ourselves confronted with a very fundamental problem. When did ultralighting begin?

The instinctive reaction of most pilots would be to say that it developed from hang gliding in the late 70s, but history is never that simple! In fact, ultralighting is a rebirth, a return to the love of low-speed flight which the earliest aviators felt so keenly, but which was subsequently lost in the quest for military superiority and commercial practicality. In a very real sense, the first ultralighter was the first heavier than air aviator. We must turn the clock back a lot further….

Up to 1909

Many excellent books have been written about the exploits of the 19th century pioneers, and in a section this length it is hard to do justice to these redoubtable characters. Nevertheless we must at least acknowledge the contribution of men like General Resnier of Goue, the Frenchman who in 1806 at the age of 77 became the world's first hang glider pilot by launching himself from the ramparts of Angouleme, some 250 ft (76 m) above the River Charente. Hitherto, would-be aviators had tried to copy the birds by fitting their arms (and sometimes legs) with imitations of wings, which they proceeded to flap wildly as they plummeted to earth. But the General went far further, building a machine which was a batten-stiffened flexible wing and a tail which, though solidly attached to the wing, was steerable by the pilot's legs.

His first flight rewarded him with a ducking in the Charente and his second with a broken leg, but the point had been made. Others had simply managed to fall slower with their machines than without them, but Resnier was almost able to control the course of his second flight - and it was a flight, not just a fall.

Not until the great German pioneer Lilienthal did matters develop further, though it was not for want of trying. The Englishman Cayley, for example, not wishing to become airborne himself at the age of 80, press-ganged his coachman to be his test pilot. But after an inconclusive attempt this brave man exclaimed "Sir - you engaged me to drive your horses, not to fly!" and refused to try again. Across the channel, in 1857, Breton Jean-Marie le Bris gained the honour of being the first to go soaring, managing to get 300 ft (90 m) above the ground. On another occasion le Bris mounted his glider on top of a carriage, and the coachman set the horses to gallop. The glider took off rapidly, but the rope holding him in the glider caught round the seat of the carriage, ripping out the seat and the driver with it. They both alighted unharmed, having achieved the first recorded flight of a two-seater, albeit inadvertently!

Finally we come to the greatest of all the pre-Wright brothers pioneers, the German Otto Lilienthal, whose first glider and flights date from 1891. Like Resnier de Goue, he tried to forget the birds. He started badly: the engine with which he was experimenting worked on the paddle rather than the propeller principle, despite the fact that the latter had been known for a long time - indeed Da Vinci had realised its aeronautical potential centuries before.

But aerodynamically he was unquestionably on the right track. Sometimes monoplanes, sometimes biplanes, all of Lilienthal's flying machines had a similar structure of bamboo woven with rattan cane and covered with waxed cotton. Even his first two birds were built with separate wings, one either side of the pilot, and that was the end of the one-piece wing for a long time. These wings were made up of radiating ribs which allowed the fabric to form deeply concave fan shaped sections, especially at the wing-tip lobes. This, just like the eagle's tip feathers, gave increased stability. At the back, he had an empennage with a vertical fin and an adjustable elevator, a combination which today we would call hybrid control, since pitch control was by control surfaces, but yaw was by weight shift, Otto moving his legs or entire body whilst being supported simply by resting his elbows on the 'fuselage', without any harness!

Incredibly, Otto made more than 2000 flights like this, running to take-off from the top of a 100 ft (30 m) hill and covering sometimes 1000 ft (300 m) before landing. This equates to a glide ratio of around 10/1, not far short of the performance of modern hang-gliders! Otto's motto goes a long way towards explaining his success: "To design a flying machine is nothing; building it isn't much; flight testing is what matters."

On 9 August 1896, five years after his first flight, Otto took off once more. No one knows for sure whether his biplane was caught by a strong gust, which combined with too much up elevator to cause a vicious stall and dive from which he could not recover, or if the top wing simply broke up in mid-air. Whichever it was, Otto's back was broken, and he died the following day.

But Lilienthal had not died in vain. He had laid the foundations of heavier than air flight, foundations which the Wright brothers were to build on so successfully just seven years later. In fact the focus of progress shifted across the Atlantic very soon after Lilienthal's death, for Frenchman Octave Chanute was resident in the US at the time, and combined the works of Mouillard and Lilienthal with some new ideas of his own, attaching to his gliders a tail with movable control surfaces (designed by Penaud, another Frenchman). These strut and wire-braced biplanes flew in 1896 at the hands of test pilots Avery and Herring, and showed the way for the Wright brothers and for Ferdinand Ferber. To Ferber should go the honour of being the first ultralight pilot, in 1908, though this was not his first successful flight, as he had three years earlier managed a 150 ft (45 m) flight with a glide ration of 8/1 in what we would now call a motor glider. Although this machine, a biplane like all the early designs, had a 12 hp Peugeot engine driving two propellers on the same axis, it was nevertheless essentially designed to be a glider, though at the time no one was interested in such subtle distinctions. Orville and Wilbur's Flyer flew in 1903, and what followed is common knowledge, history with a capital H: the conquest of the sky and on out into space.

But in the headlong rush from Ferber's powered glider to the most sophisticated powered glider yet, the Space Shuttle 'Columbia', something had been lost; the birdman had taken a wrong turning.