Many stories from antiquity involve flight, such as the Greek legend of Icarus and Daedalus, and the Vimana in age-old Indian epics. During 400 BC in Greece, Archytas was reputed to have designed and built the first artificial, self-propelled flying device, a bird-shaped model propelled by a jet of what was probably steam, said to have flown some 200 m. This device may have been suspended for its flight.
Some of the first recorded attempts with gliders were those by the 9th-century poet Abbas Ibn Firnas and the 11th-century monk Eilmer of Malmesbury; both experiments injured their pilots. Leonardo da Vinci discovered the wing design of birds and designed a man-powered aircraft in his Codex on the Flight of Birds (1502).
In 1799, Sir George Cayley set forth the concept of the modern aeroplane as a fixed-wing flying machine with different systems for lift, propulsion, and control. Cayley was building and flying models of fixed-wing aircraft as early as 1803, and he built a triumphant passenger-carrying glider in 1853. In 1856, Frenchman Jean-Marie Le Bris made the first powered flight, by using his glider "L'Albatros artificiel" pulled by a horse on a beach. In 1883, the American John J. Montgomery made a handled flight in a glider. Other aviators who made similar successful airborne attempts at that time were Otto Lilienthal, Percy Pilcher, and Octave Chanute.
Sir Hiram Maxim built a craft that weighed 3.5 tons, with a 110-foot (34-meter) wingspan that was powered by two 360-horsepower (270-kW) steam engines driving a couple propellers. In 1894, his device was tested with overhead rails to prevent it from rising. The test showed that it had enough power to take off. The craft was uncontrollable, which Maxim, it is assumed, realized, because he subsequently abandoned work on it.
In the 1890s, Lawrence Hargrave conducted research on wing structures and developed a box kite that lifted the weight of a person. It is presumed his box kite designs were widely adopted and became the prevalent type of aircraft until 1909. Although he also made a type of rotary aircraft engine, he did not create and fly a powered fixed-wing airplane.
The Wright brothers' flights in 1903 is seen by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the standard setting and record-keeping body for aeronautics, as "the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight". By 1905, the Wright Flyer III was capable of fully controllable, stable flight for long periods.
In 1906, Alberto Santos Dumont made what has been claimed as the first airplane flight unassisted by catapult and set the first world record recognized by the Aéro-Club de France by flying 220 meters (720 ft) in under 22 seconds. This flight was also recognized by the FAI.
An early aircraft design that brought together the modern monoplane tractor configuration was the Bleriot VIII creation of 1908. It had movable tail surfaces controlling both yaw and pitch, a form of roll control supplied either by wing warping or by ailerons and handled by its pilot with a joystick and rudder bar. It was an important precursor of his later Bleriot XI Channel-crossing aircraft of the summer of 1909.
World War I was as a test bed for the use of the aircraft as a weapon. Initially seen by the generals as a "toy", aircraft demonstrated their potential as mobile observation platforms, then proved themselves to be devices of war capable of causing casualties to the enemy. The first known aerial victory with a synchronized machine gun-armed fighter aircraft occurred in 1915, by German Luftstreitkräfte Leutnant Kurt Wintgens. Fighter aces showed up; the greatest (by number of air victories) was Manfred von Richthofen.
Following WWI, aircraft technology continued to evolve. Alcock and Brown flew the Atlantic non-stop for the first time in 1919. The earliest commercial flights took place between the United States and Canada in 1919.
Airplanes had an existence in all the major battles of World War II. They were a crucial component of the military strategies of the period, such as the German Blitzkrieg or the American and Japanese aircraft carrier campaigns of the Pacific.
The earliest jet aircraft was the German Heinkel He 178, which was tested in 1939. In 1943, the Messerschmitt Me 262, the first jet fighter aircraft, went into service in the German Luftwaffe. In October 1947, the Bell X-1 was the earliest aircraft to exceed the speed of sound.
In 1948-49, aircraft hauled supplies during the Berlin Blockade. New airplane types, such as the B-52, were made during the Cold War.
The first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet, was put forward in 1952. The Boeing 707, the earliest widely successful commercial jet, was in commercial service for more than 50 years, from 1958 to 2010. The Boeing 747 was the world's largest passenger aircraft from 1970 until it was surpassed by the Airbus A380 in 2005.