Abbas Ibn Firnas – Father of Aviation


History is filled with stories of legendary people who have attempted to take flight; none more so than the myth of Icarus who was said to have flown too close to the sun and got burnt.

In reality, the first human to take flight was known as Abbas Abu Al-Qassim Ibn Firnas Ibn Wirdas Al-Takurini. Ibn Firnas was born in what is known today as Ronda, Spain in 810AD.  However, he lived in Cordoba, which was the center of learning in the Muslim world at the time.

Ibn Firnas was a brilliant scholar who possessed advanced skills as an astronomer, inventor, engineer, aviator, physician, musician and poet. He designed amongst other things a water clock, a colourless glass and corrective lenses. He was very interested in mechanical devices and especially crystals, which led him to melt sand into glass and create Andalusian drinking glasses.

It was said that he was influenced by a stuntman named Armen Firman who had developed a means of simulating flight through observing nature and coupling that with a basic understanding of flight mechanics. Firman was said to have built a silk suit of sorts that was reinforced with wooden rods, which he used to climb to the top of the minarets of the grand mosque in Cordoba, and jumped. Even though he didn’t fly, his invention inflated enough to slow down his fall. This meant that he only sustained minor injuries as opposed to being crippled or worse, dead.

According to some reports, Ibn Firnas was in the crowd observing this and it prompted him to investigate the world of aeronautics so much so, he was able to construct his own flying machine 23 years after he first observed Firman and his flying contraption. Ibn Firnas took flight in a pair of wings made out of real feathers and fashioned out wood and silk. He then went on to Jabal al- Arus and jumped off the cliff. Observers stated that he glided for what felt like ten minutes before starting to descend.

On his descent, he realized that he had a major flaw in his design. He had focused too much on the ability and mechanics of taking off and had forgotten to study descent in flight. This meant that he descended and landed at a very high speed, which caused him to seriously injure himself.

During the twelve years that followed, he thought about what went wrong with his design and he concluded that like the birds, he would need a tail in order to slow down his descent. He never again took flight in his lifetime but centuries later, many followed in his footsteps to study the science and mechanics of flying.

In 1976, the Working Group for Planetary System nomenclature named a moon crater after him in recognition of his achievements. There is also an airport named after him in Baghdad known as the Ibn Firnas Airport.