Meet some of the early aviator innovators who brought the airplane to the masses.

In the 11 years between the Wright brothers’ first flights and the outbreak of World War I, experimenters around the globe began designing and building airplanes. European governments supported the industry, which would soon have a huge impact on society, politics, and culture in both war and peace. The first air races, meets, and exhibitions kicked off a wave of public enthusiasm for aviation that circled the globe. The men and women who flew ever higher, faster, and farther emerged as the great heroes of the era. The stage was set for a new age shaped by the new reality of human flight.

Jules Védrines, an early French aviator, seated in the cockpit of his Borel monoplane, sometime during the May 21-28, 1911 during the Paris-Madrid cross country race. Védrines was the winner of this race.

Who were they? 

The first generation of aviators ranged from aristocrats like the Comte de Lambert and industrialists like C. S. Rolls, to famed racing pilot Jules Védrines, who grew up in the tough back alleys of Paris. Women were as attracted to the thrills of flying as were men. Some, like Harriet Quimby, became aerial stars. Whatever their origin, age, or gender, they all shared incredible courage and a daring spirit. 

The Wright brothers made history when they completed first heavier-than-air powered flight in 1903. Learn more about the Wright brothers Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, became interested in flight while serving on the Smithsonian Board of Regents during the period of Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley’s aeronautical experiments. Following Langley’s death in 1906, Bell decided to begin aeronautical experiments himself. 

Chartered in 1907 under the leadership of Alexander Graham Bell, The Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) was a Canadian-American research organization. In two years it produced four viable aircraft, including the first powered airplane to fly in Canada. 

Harriet Quimby

Despite a very short career, Harriet Quimby remains one of the most popular women aviators. Quimby was the first American woman to earn a pilot's license and the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel.  

Learn more about Quimby
Glenn Hammond Curtiss

Like the Wright brothers, Glenn H. Curtiss began his career building and racing bicycles. Graduating to motorcycles, he set a world land speed record of 136.3 mph (219.4 km/h) at Daytona, Florida, in 1907. His motorcycle engines impressed acrobat-turned-aviation pioneer Thomas S. Baldwin, who used a Curtiss motor to power the airship that he built for the U.S. Army. In 1907, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell recruited Curtiss to help his Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) build a powered airplane. On July 4, 1908, Curtiss won the Scientific American Trophy with a straight-line flight of one kilometer flying his June Bug.  

Learn more about Curtiss
Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Glenn Curtiss Object Medal, Aero Club of America Aviation Medal of Merit, Glenn Curtiss Object Plaque, Collier Trophy, Glenn Curtiss Object Object Highlight Curtiss D-III Headless Pusher, 1912

This is an original Curtiss D-III, which first appeared in 1909 and became the standard aircraft flown by members of the Curtiss Exhibition team. This example was built in 1919 under the supervision of Glenn Curtiss, using some 1912 parts. The aircraft was flown by aviator “Casey” Jones at air meets and celebrations to remind spectators of the progress of aviation in a short time. 

Headless refers to the location of the elevator—it is in the rear, unlike earlier Curtiss models which featured it in front of the pilot. A pusher is an airplane with the propeller behind the wing, so that it “pushes” the airplane forward. This type was flown by such famous Curtiss aviators as John McCurdy, Lincoln Beachey, and Glenn Curtiss himself. The Curtiss D was a very popular design with would-be aviators constructing their own airplanes. 

View the Curtiss D-III

Other Curtiss Aircraft 

In the years leading up to World War I, Curtiss emerged as the nation’s leading producer of aircraft. He made the world’s first practical flying boats and was a leading supplier to the U.S. and foreign navies. Find models of some of the Curtiss company products, 1909–1914, below. 

Model, Static, Curtiss Hydroaeroplane Object Model, Static, Curtiss D, 1910 Object Model, Static, Curtiss "June Bug" Object Model, Static, Curtiss Twin Tractor Object

Louis Blériot 

Louis Blériot (1872–1936) was an engineer who made his reputation manufacturing automobile headlights, then used the proceeds to pay for his aviation experiments. After building 10 different models, he found success in 1909 with his classic Type XI monoplane. After his historic flight across the English Channel in July 1909, Blériot emerged as one of the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers, a position he held well into the post-war years. 

View of Louis Blériot sitting in his Bleriot XI on the ground. Alfred Leblanc stands behind the cockpit. Photo taken at the start of Bleriot's cross-Channel flight of 25 July 1909.

Pre-1909 Blériot Designs 

The Voisin-built "Blériot II" floatplane gilder on the River Seine, France, on July 10, 1905. A pilot is seated at the controls as several men hold the aircraft steady in the shallow water. 

The Blériot-Voison Blériot IV floatplane, probably taken at Lac d'Enghien near Paris on October 12th or 18th, 1906, when unsuccessful test flight were attempted. However, a caption in pencil on the back of the photograph gives the date as July 15, 1911. 

View of the the Blériot VII on the ground.

Object Highlight The Blériot XI

The classic Blériot XI first appeared in the spring of 1909, and became one of the most popular monoplanes produced before World War I. It was licensed for other firms to build, and was popular with European armies and even do-it-yourself builders in both Europe and America. The design was updated periodically—the 1914 model on exhibit is much heavier and stronger than the original. 

This plane is a monoplane, with one set of wings. It was owned by John "Upside -Down" Domenjoz. While the braced wings of a biplane were stronger, monoplanes were generally faster and more popular with early racing pilots. Thin monoplane wings were prone to twisting, which endangered pilots pulling out of steep dives. Biplane wings were braced together to resist twisting and distortion. Better engineering solved the problem and made later models of the Blériot XI among the most popular airplanes of their time.  

View the Blériot XI

Recognition for Blériot  

His flight across the English Channel made Louis Blériot one of the best known and most celebrated aviators in the world. 

Medal, Chavez Flies the Alps, 1910 Object Medal, Louis Bleriot Object Medal, Aviation Object Medal, Circuit de L'Est Object

Matilde Moisant (fourth from left) and Harriet Quimby (third from right) listen with other students as instructor André Houpert (center, with pointer) makes diagram on the ground at the Moisant School of Aviation, Garden City, Long Island, New York.

The Moisants 

American businessman John Moisant learned to fly in France, then formed the Moisant International Aviators in 1910. Operating as a touring “flying circus,” the team included his sister, Matilde, and Harriet Quimby, the first two American women to earn pilot’s licenses.  

Early Mexican Aviators at the Moisant Aviation School

On September 25, 1912, Alberto Salinas Carranza and Gustavo Salinas Camiña received their pilot licenses from the Aero Club of America. The Salinas cousins were the first of a group of five Mexican pilots sent by their government to the United States to study at the Moisant Aviation School at Hempstead, Long Island.

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Matilde Moisant

Matilde Moisant won the 1911 Rodman Wanamaker Trophy for flying her monoplane to a women’s record altitude of 1,200 feet (366 meters).

Learn more about Moisant
Georgia "Tiny" Broderick

At just five feet (1.5 meters) tall and weighing all of 85 pounds (39 kilograms), Georgia Broderick earned the nickname “Tiny.” Yet as the first woman to parachute from an airplane, her courage was anything but tiny. At 15, she started jumping from tethered balloons wearing a “life preserver” designed by her adoptive father. She made her first jump from an airplane on June 21, 1913. While parachute jumping was rare before World War I, it became a popular feature of air shows after the war. 

The daring men and women who flew higher, faster, and farther during the years before World War I were huge celebrities.

Their exploits made headlines in newspapers and magazines around the globe, and a few became household names. Today, most are forgotten.

Read about two such women