Little did the Wright Brothers know that when they boarded their muslin-covered, wooden plane on that December morning that they would be paving the way for aviation as we now know it. It is astounding to think how far air travel has come in the last 108 years. We now have planes that can carry over 500 passengers to the other side of the world, in extraordinary comfort in less than 24 hours, the prospect of which back in 1903 would have sounded like something fresh from the pages of a science-fiction novel!
Animals conquered flight long before 1903, admittedly in a slightly different fashion. It has proved such a successful strategy that it has evolved independently four times in birds, bats, insects (and pterosaurs), and each of the extant groups is still going strong.
Bats are the second most diverse group of mammals and the only mammal to have developed true powered flight. Birds have the most species of any class of terrestrial vertebrates, and there are more species of insect than all other animals added together, so they must be doing something right!
The Wright Brothers started out building gliders before honing their designs and moving onto powered flight. Gliding is also a popular strategy in the natural world and can be seen in mammals including the northern flying squirrel. This nocturnal mammal glides between trees using a fold of skin that stretches between its wrists and ankles. This parachute effect allows it to travel up to 45 metres in a single glide, using its tail as a rudder.
So why was it that the Wright Brothers succeeded when so many others had tried and failed? The answer is quite simple; they had achieved both power and control, using a specially designed lightweight engine and controls that allowed the pilot to steer effectively. One of the best examples of powerful, controlled flight in birds has to be the kestrel. Kestrels hunt by sight and are able to hover perfectly still in mid air, even in heavy winds. Once they have locked their sights onto their prey they are able to dive to capture it with incredible accuracy.