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The Spanish influence - four fathers of modern flight

Abbas Ibn Firnas

Spain [if one puts Icarus and his father Daedalus to one side] can lay serious claim to being the home of the first flight by man. There is an account of Abbas Ibn Firnas creating and flying the first manned glider on the late 9th century. Ibn Firnas was an Andalusician glassworker, thinker, musician and inventor. It is said that he was inspired by the effort of Armen Firman who, in 852, jumped from the top of the minaret of the Great Mosque of Cordoba and landed safely using a rudimentary parachute.

Ibn Firnas's enthusiasm for flight was kindled and for the next twenty years he diverted his diverse skills into studying birds; falling seeds, leaves and feathers and the general mechanics of flying. His glider had wings made from silk, wood and feathers and, by then in his 60s, he used his machine to jump off the ridge of the Sierra Morena near Cordoba and stayed airborne for about 10 minutes. However despite all his study he forgot that birds use their tail to control their descent and he omitted that vital element when building his glider. The inevitable result was a crash landing which left Ibn Firnas with several broken bones and living in pain for the remaining dozen or so years of his life.

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Diego Marin Aguilera 1757-1799

The near tragic result of Ibn Firnas's courage and skill may be why this writer can find no substantive record of Spanish attempts at fight until the story of Diego Marin Aguilera who lived from 1757-1799. Aguilera was an agricultural labourer and shepherd born in Coruna del Conde who became the main bread winner for his seven brothers, at an early age, on the death of his father. Like Ibn Firnas before whim Aguilera had an agile and fertile mind. He invented several labour saving devices for working in Mills, Quarries and Threshing.

But the eagles that soared overhead as he herded sheep ignited a passion to fly within Marin. He spent six years building a flying machine, using wood, cloth and feathers. he also constructed sophisticated iron joints for the wings and tail, with the help of a local blacksmith, which allowed, for example, the flapping of wings.

On 15 May, 1793, he placed his flying machine on the highest part of the Castle del Conde and flapping his wings he took off. The machine crossed the rover Arandilla and cruised for about 500 yards before crashing when one of the metal joints broke. Marin suffered only superficial injuries and it seems likely that his machine might have gone considerably further if the metal joint had been welded more securely.

However Marin did not fly again. The local villagers declaimed him as a heretic and burned his machine. Depressed and feeling disgraced Marin died only six years later, aged 44. Yet Marin's achievement, often overlooked by the general pubic, was quite remarkable given that he had no formal scientific education and that his invention was purely the result of his own ingenuity, skill and courage. Today in Spain he is recognised as the 'Father of aviation' and the Spanish Airforce has dedicated a monument to Marin next to the castle from where he took off.

Antonio Fernandez Santillana 1886-1909

Born in Madrid in 1866, is recognised as the first Spaniard to design, build and fly a powered aircraft. Like his Spanish predecessors Santillana was an unlikely aviation pioneer being a tailor and fashion designer. He moved to France in his youth and encouraged by the defats of the Wright brothers and finding several aviators amongst his friends he built a total of three planes - making the first in 1908. He flew his own creations at several air shows and began to build a prestigious following. However Santillana's life was cut short when he died in an air cars on the Cote D.Azur in 1909.

Joaquin Loriga 1895-1927

Completes this quartet of relatively unsung Spanish aviation pioneers. Señor Loriga was raised in a Palace - the Pazo de Linares now a major cultural centre and close to Santiago de Compostela - and joined the army and pilots division of the Spanish Military Aviation Service in 1920. He served in the North African Rif War where he received the Militar Medal for bravery.

In 1924 Loriga proposed a flight between Spain and The Philippines which had a large Spanish population having been under Spanish colonial rule from 1556-1898. The purpose of the 11,000 mile trip was to foster commercial links and, some say, to remind the Philippines that Spanish rule have been more beneficial than the current American colonisation which had been the result of the Spanish American War of 1898.

Loriga led a squad of three Breget XIX, designed as two seater light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, which departed Madrid en route to Manila on 5 April 1926. The route included several stopovers for refuelling and maintenance and included Tunisia, Cairo, Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Vietnam. Unfortunately one plane had to be abandoned in the North African desert and another on the coast of China leaving Loriga and his engineer to complete the task by themselves.They landed in Aparri in the Philippines on 11 May and were met by a cheering throng who carried the two men on their shoulders in triumph.They completed the last leg of their epic journey on 13 May by flying to Manila with a escort of 12 planes from the US Army.

Loriga was promoted to Captain in 1926 and , in July 1927, became the first pilot to land a plane in Galicia, where he had been born and raised. This very personal triumph was sadly short-lived as, returning to his military base in Cuerto Vientos, that same day Captain Loriga crashed on landing and died.