Before Wilbur and Orville Wright, there was The Flying Man. Otto Lilienthal lived in Germany, and from a young age, he dreamed of soaring in the air like a bird. He and his brother, Gustav experimented with making wings to fly. Unsurprising, wings did not work, as he could not flap them quickly enough and they were certainly too heavy. After many failed attempts, In 1891 Otto found success in making a successful hang glider for traveling through the air, more than a decade before the Wright brothers flew through the air.
In the biographical picture book The Flying Man: Otto Lilenthal the World’s First Pilot by Mike Downs, illustrated by David Hohn (Astra Young Readers, December 2022), young readers learn about this first successful aviator. After a time, brother Gustav was injured in a trial flight and so he did not continue in the trials (which I assume is why these two did not become a set of brother aviators as did the Wrights). Wilbur and Orville Wright credited Otto for the inspiration and design ideas they used for their own continued flight improvements.
Of course, Otto’s flight was different from the Wright brothers’ flights. Otto used gravity to bring himself through the air from a higher place to a lower place. However, the success of flying through the air in gliders more than 2,000 times gave scientists a better idea of the practicality of someday achieving manned flight with machines heavier than air. Otto Lilienthal, the first pilot truly was a pioneer of aerodynamics, discovering and understanding the principles before any others. He died in 1896 after a crash on his glider.
Mike Downs’s picture book draws in young readers by beginning with his experiments as a young child. It may be difficult for kids to comprehend a day before the discovery of flight, and Downs nicely describes the desires of a young child to try the unthinkable, to dream beyond his own experiences. The illustrations paint the wonder Otto must have felt as he looked down at the world and the small people below him. I love how in one particular illustration, his eyes are closed in bliss as he experiences the feeling of flying.
Note: I received a digital review copy of this book.