Abbas ibn Firnas, The First Flying Man (810–887)

The first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and take it into the air was Muslim scientist Abbas ibn Firnas in the 9th century in the city of Cordoba, Spain. He gained knowledge of flight by studying birds.

Abbas ibn Firnas in Dubai shopping mall

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History is full of legends and fables of men trying to fly. Icarus being the most famous who flew so close to the sun that the the wax holding his feathers melted and he fell into the sea and drowned. The first successful attempt at flight was done by the Chinese who flew kites around the 5th century BCE but the first successful attempt at human flight was accomplished by a Muslim, Abbas ibn Firnas in 875 CE in the city of Qurtuba Al-Andalus (Cordoba, Spain).

Who was Abbas ibn Firnas?

Abbas Ibn Firnass

Abbas Ibn Firnas was born in Izn-Rand Onda Al-Andalus (today Ronda Spain) but lived in the Emirate of Cordoba which was one of the major centers of learning in the Muslim world. He was a polymath: an inventor, engineer, aviator, physician, and Arabic poet.


The first attempt

The stories say that Ibn Firnas was influenced by the one named Armen Firman in 852 CE. This is a person who made a living by pulling stunts. He was no scientist but by observing the nature around him and based on a rudimentary understanding of the mechanics of flight, he constructed a suit of silk with wood reinforced rods. Taking his crude machine, Armen Firman climbed to the top of a minaret of the grand mosque in Qurtuba and jumped. He did not fly, he plummeted but fortunately his flying contraption inflated just enough to slow his descent so he did not fall at full speed. Hitting the ground he was mildly hurt but he was not dead or crippled. This was probably the world’s first parachute jump.

Abbas Ibn Firnas statue on the road to Baghdad International Airport

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The second attempt

In 875, about 23 years after Armen Firman, the 70 year old Ibn Firnas constructed his flying machine after spending the intervening years studying the nature of flight in between his other studies. He constructed a pair of wings out of silk and wood and had sewn actual feathers. From the hills of Jabal Al-‘Arus he jumped off a cliff. He would glide for a considerable period of time. Many witnesses said it felt like 10 minutes.

The second flying machine

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As he came down into his final descent, he realized there was a problem with his design. He had focused all of his energy in studying the mechanics of taking off but had neglected the mechanics of landing. As he descended back to earth, unable to control his speed, he came down at a very high speed. When he hit the ground, he hit it hard and seriously injured himself.

How did he create it?

In order to obtain sufficient lift to support his weight, Abbas bin Firnas constructed wings with a span that is estimated between four and five meters. Striving to keep the flying machine strong and light enough, he manufactured a light wooden frame, probably using bamboo, which is hollow like the bones in a bird’s wing.

Abbas Ibn Firnas

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The parts of the frame were tied together with thin strips of silk, as this was the lightest and strongest material at the time. Silk was also used as the fabric covering of the wings. Finally, he covered the wings and his clothes with eagle feather. Abbas bin Firnas manufactured a harness system whereby he could be suspended under the flying machine and control the wing movements with the aid of handles attached to the wings. Considering that Abbas bin Firnas was 70 years old at the time with the resultant physical limitations, the wing movements were probably limited.

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