Hundreds of years before Leonardo’s fabulous flying machines, Eilmer of Malmesbury, an English monk born around the year 980, made the first known flight. Wearing a set of wings, Eilmer took off from the tower of the Malmesbury Abbey and flew for about 15 seconds and a distance of about 200 meters before crash landing. Around 1125, the historian William of Malmesbury wrote of Eilmer, passing on to us all that is known about his flight:
He was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail.Young Eilmer had planned a second flight to test his theory about a tail adding stability, but the abbot nixed the idea.
Dr. Richard P. Hallion, Historical Advisor to the Air Force Centennial of Flight Office, considers Eilmer to have been the first "test pilot":
Eilmer typified the inquisitive spirit of medieval enthusiasts who developed small drawstring toy helicopters, windmills, and sophisticated sails for boats. As well, church artists increasingly showed angels with ever-more-accurate depictions of bird-like wings, detailing the wing's camber (curvature) that would prove crucial to generating the lifting forces enabling a bird -- or an airplane -- to fly. This climate of thought led to general acceptance that air was something that could be "worked." Flying was thus not magical, but could be attained by physical effort and human reasoning.
Given the geography of the Abbey, his landing site, and the account of his flight, he must have remained airborne about 15 seconds. At low altitude he apparently attempted to flap the wings, which threw him out of control. His post-flight assessment qualifies him as the first "test pilot," for he sought to understand, in technological terms, what happened on the flight and why he crashed.
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