Pilots, Planes and Pioneers

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hile the Wright brothers may have been the first to make a sustained, controlled flight, they were just two among hundreds of brave men and women who helped to give the world its wings during the earliest days of aviation. Their Flyer was but one of many historically important aircraft. Below are brief descriptions and photos of some of the most important people and planes, and where available resources and links where you can find more information. In some cases, contributors have supplied expanded histories and biographies. Those are listed at the right and linked below.



Feng Ru was an inventor, aircraft designer, aviator, and visionary who is remembered as the "father of aviation" in China. He came to California as a young boy in 1895, hoping to escape the political and economic turmoil that had crippled nineteenth-century China. He found things little better in America where prejudice against the Chinese and institutionalized racism severely limited the schools he could attend and the jobs he could hold. Nonetheless, he taught himself mechanical and electrical engineering. By the time he was in his twenties, he had a reputation as a skilled machinist and an inventor.

He heard about the success of the Wright brothers shortly after they first flew and immediately understood the military potential of the airplane. He began his work in aviation in 1906 and completed his first airplane in 1907. It was unsuccessful, but his second airplane flew for twenty minutes on September 22, 1909 just outside of Oakland, California. It was also the first powered flight on the West Coast of America. With the backing of several Chinese-American businessmen, he started his own airplane manufacturing company, the Guangdong Air Vehicle Company.

He continued to make test flights and built a third aircraft based on the designs of Glenn Curtiss. His success caught the attention of the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yixian (known as Sun Yat-sen in the west), who asked him to bring his airplanes to China to aid in the rebellion against the Manchu Qing monarchy. Feng returned to Hong Kong, China on March 21, 1911 and was given the rank of Captain in Sun's army. Although little is known about his role in the war, it is more than likely that he was the first aviator ever to fly a military mission. After the revolution succeeded in late 1911, Sun Yixian made him head of the newborn Chinese air force. Feng built another aircraft the first to be manufactured in China but died during a demonstration flight on August 26, 1912. Sun commanded that he be buried in a shrine with soldiers who served in the revolution and that the words "Pioneer of Chinese Aviation"  be inscribed on his tomb.

Feng Ru, known in San Francisco, California as Fung Joe Guey.

Feng Ru in the cockpit of the Feng 2 in  Guangdong, China in 1911.

A replica of Feng's 1912 aircraft, the first built in China, in the China Aviation Museum in Xiaotangshan, China, 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Beijing.

Feng Ru in his tiny  workshop in Oakland, California in 1909. This was the sole facility of the Guangdong Air Vehicle Company.

Feng Ru's second successful aircraft, the Feng 2, in 1910. The engine was built by E. J. Hall, the co-designer of the legendary Liberty airplane engine. The Feng 2 engine was among his first designs.

Feng Ru's tombstone at the Mausoleum of the 72 Huanghuagang Martyrs in Guangzhou, China. The mausoleum commemorates revolutionaries who overthrew the Chinese monarchy in 1911.
Ferdinand Ferber was a French artillery captain who, in the years after Lilienthal's death,  single-handedly kept the notion of heavier-than-air flight alive in France. He wrote exhaustively on aviation and attracted the attention of Ernest Archdeacon, another French aviation enthusiast, who had organized the Aero Club of France in 1898. In 1901, he read a magazine article about the research of Octave Chanute. He began corresponding with Chanute and learned of the Wright brothers, then began corresponding with the brothers themselves and made a crude copy of their 1901 glider. After some modification, he tested a motorized version of the glider on a crane in 1903 but was dissatisfied with the performance. Also in 1903, Ferber and Archdeacon invited Chanute to speak at the club and his news of the Wrights galvanized the members and spurred them to pursue their own aviation research. Ferber built a trend-setting tail-behind glider in 1904. He finally achieved a flyable aircraft of his own design in 1908, but decided to purchase a Voison for exhibition flying in 1909. He was killed in this airplane on 22 September 1909 just prior to an attempt to fly the English Channel.

Captain Ferber in his flying togs, standing beside his Voison in 1909.

Ferber gliding in 1901, hanging from one of his earliest designs.

Ferber tests a motorized version of his Type du Wright airplane as it hangs from a crane. It never achieved free flight.

Ferber's influential 1904 glider had an elevator in front and a horizontal stabilizer behind.

The 1908 Ferber No. 9.
Abbas Qasim Ibn Firnas was a scientist, inventor, and musician who lived in Andalusia, as the region around Cordoba, Spain was known when it was under Muslim rule and part of the vast Ottoman Empire. Among his many accomplishments were the manufacture of glass from sand, a method for cutting facets in crystal, and the first metronome to keep time in music. In 852 CE, Firnas witnessed an attempt to fly from a minaret of the Great Mosque in Cordoba. The would-be aviator survived the fall the huge cloak he used for wings acted as a parachute. Firnas was intrigued and spent the next two decades studying birds, bats, and wind-borne seeds to discover the secrets of flight. (Some historical accounts say the Firnas was the jumper and he spent years in study to discover what he did wrong.) In 875 CE he was ready to make his own attempt (or a second attempt). Hanging from a tail-less glider, he jumped from a high point in the city and made a short, uncontrolled glide. He injured his back when landing, putting an end to his test flights. Nonetheless, he was the first scientist ever to study and test the possibility of manned flight using a fixed-wing aircraft. There is a crater on the dark side of the Moon named in his honor.

An artist's conception of the flight of Abbas ibn Firnas.

This conception of ibn Firnas' glider hangs in an Arabian museum. It's not a replica; no plans for the historic aircraft survive.

Among ibn Firnas' many inventions was one of the first planetariums.

This statue of ibn Firnas stands in Baghdad, Irag at an airport named for him.

Charley Furnas of West Milton, OH was the second mechanic hired by the Wright brothers (after Charley Taylor) to help them build airplanes. They needed an extra hand in early 1908 getting ready to demonstrate airplanes in France and for the U.S. Army. Charley also assisted the Wrights in Kitty Hawk with the initial test flights of their two-seat airplane and became the world's first airplane passenger, flying with both Wright brothers on 14 May 1908. (The only other person who would fly with both Wilbur and Orville was their sister Katharine.) Charley also helped Orville at the Army trials in 1908. He died of tuberculosis in 1941.

For an expanded biography of Charley Furnas, see The First Airplane Passenger.

Charles Furnas.

The Wright Flyer III in Kitty Hawk in 1908, configured to carry two people.

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