Lilienthal Glider
Courtesy of San Diego Air and Space Museum

Lilienthal Glider

The creator of this glider, Otto Lilienthal, was one of the the first humans to fly. His writings and glider designs helped to inspire the Wright brothers.


Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896), an engineer from Anklam, Germany, was one of the first humans to glide through the air. He became a pioneer of unpowered human flight by building and flying the world's first hang gliders.

Lilienthal built several different types of gliders, and made around 2,000 flights between 1891-1896. Using his gliders, he flew as far as 820 feet (250 meters), and accumulated five hours of flight time in his lifetime. Many of his gliders, such as the one we have on display, feature cambered wings, which means the wings were slightly curved on top to increase lift. Other designs used two wings, one positioned over the other in the biplane style. The Wright brothers were inspired by Lilienthal's designs, and the famous plane they used for the first powered flight was built in the biplane configuration.

Lilienthal's gliders were carefully designed to distribute weight as evenly as possible to ensure a stable flight. To control the roll of the gliders, pilots would swing their bodies from left to right, using their own weight to change the direction of the glider.

Near the end of his life, Lilienthal started to experiment with powered flight and built the first four-cycle internal combustion engine. Unfortunately, however, Lilienthal died when a wind gust caught his glider during a flight and he fell.

The Science Center's Lilienthal Glider

Our Lilienthal glider is a full scale model of an original Lilienthal 'normal-glider'. Eight gliders of this design were distributed around the world. Only samples or parts of the original 'normal-glider' and the 'storm wing model' have been preserved.

The craftspeople who originally constructed the model included an inscription in German, which says,
"Aus Berlin - Staaken 
de besten gruesse an das 
freie land Amerika von den erbauern."

Translated, the inscription reads, 
"From Berlin - Staaken
the best wishes to the
free country America
from the constructors."

Our Lilienthal glider is not currently on display, but will be a part of our upcoming Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center.