Invented Their Own Deaths: Flying Machines

History is littered with failed inventions and experiments; But most of the time the only damage done is to lab equipment, basements and bruised egos followed by the exclamation of ‘Back to the drawing board’.

But it’s the inventors who give the ultimate sacrifice, who lay down their lives for an idea, process, product or innovation  they believed so strongly in, it’s these would-be pioneers I pay tribute in this ongoing series of articles, and share their hair brained demises with you each week.

I’ll start with my favorite genre of inventions, the flying machine.  For eons man has watched birds with envy, as they dance on the wind with ease, mocking gravity and humanity’s short comings. Until the Wright brothers got it right, there were many contenders for the title of first man to fly.

Here’s a few that didn’t work out.

Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari (died 1010 AD), a Muslim Kazakh Turkic scholar attempted to fly using two wooden wings and a rope. He leapt from the roof of a mosque in Nijabur and fell to his death.

An Sketch of Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari’s ‘wing suit’

Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier was the first known fatality in an air crash when his Rozière balloon (an early design of a hot air ballon) crashed on 15 June 1785 while he attempted to cross the English Channel.

The ‘ Rozière balloon ‘

Otto Lilienthal, the “Glider King”, was a German aviator who perfected the design, and repeated flight of the worlds first hang glider. He produced a number of different designs, each test flown by him self, some more eccentric than others; For example, the White Stalk the resembled a … White stalk.

Otto Lilienthal’s “White Stalk” Glider.

Lilienthal was also the first to attach a small motor to the rear of his glider, inventing the first “Micro lite”.
It was this design that would be his downfall; in 1896 his lost control of his glider mid air and fall 17 meters to the ground He was later announced dead with sever spinal injuries.

The ‘Glider King’

Franz Reichelt was a French tailor, who fancied him self an inventor and ‘Parachute pioneer’. He custom made a parachute suit, almost resembling modern day wing suits, but with much weaker material. Reichelt had tested the design on dummys, throwing them from heights of up to 5 floors, with many successes.
In fact he was so confident with his invention that in February 1912  he volunteered to test it himself by parachuting off of the Eiffel Tower .

Unfortunately Reichelt’s suit failed, and he died on impact.

Below is the actual cinematography taken of his jump, showing the moment he hit the ground and the after math of officials measuring his ‘impact crater’.


Henry Smolinski (died 1973) was killed during a test flight of the AVE Mizar, a flying car he designed.
The front half of the aircraft was modeled on a Ford Pinto, and the back half consisting of a Cessna Skymaster light airplane. To generate enough power to take off, both the car and plane engines would be used, and once in the air the car half of the hybrid would be switched off.

Henry Smolinski’s Flying Car

 Originally scheduled for mass production in 1974, the idea was scrapped after one of the models got in an accident during a test flight. The right wing detached and the Pinto was separated from the wings, resulting in a fiery crash that killed Smolinski and the pilot. 

Thanks for paying your respects to the great men who may of helped pioneer modern day flight as we know it, for we only truly learn through the acts of trial and error.

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