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Home > Blog > The History Of Light Aircraft Flying In England

The History of Light Aircraft Flying in England

Posted 02 May 2023

Light Aircraft Flying

Keep reading to learn more about the rich history of aviation, how it started, the key milestones in its evolution, and where aviation is headed in the future!

Aviation has come a long way – from the first concept of “flying contraptions” to the first flight by the Wright brothers.

Like many other industries, aviation has seen a steady evolution and today, it is one of the biggest sectors in the world that is expected to grow year-over-year due to growing demands for better transportation.

The 20th century was touted to be the birth of modern aviation and with the help of clever engineering and technological improvements, we were able to improve and build highly efficient and advanced aircraft – and it all started in a small town in England.

Keep reading to learn more about the rich history of aviation, how it started, the key milestones in its evolution, and where aviation is headed in the future!

The Conception of Flight

Humans have been dreaming of flying ever since they first looked at the sky. Before we even thought about flying from an engineering perspective, people pondered upon the idea of flying with birds in philosophical terms.

The hypothetical discussions surrounding flight are thought to not only be essential in the invention of aircraft but also encouraged and inspired people to learn more about the environment in scientific terms.

The basis of flying is all grounded in science and while there were plenty of designs, the most famous one being from Leonardo da Vinci, the practicality of these hypothetical aircraft was lacking because they weren’t based on solid science.

What do we mean by this? Well, it was only when our understanding of physics and fluid dynamics improved that we started to think seriously about building sustainable aircraft. In the simplest terms, flight is possible due to a scientific principle.

The Recipe for Flight

This principle is called Bernoulli's principle which defines the motion of fluids in various states of pressure. You can replace fluid with air in this concept, but the principle will remain the same. This principle is the basis of which we were able to understand and build wing systems that could sustain flight.

You can even see this principle in action at home! Try doing a simple experiment: take a piece of paper and tear out a small ribbon from it. Now hold the paper ribbon at one end and blow across the top. You will immediately notice the paper lift even though you are blowing air from the top.

This phenomenon happens because the moving air on top has lower pressure which allows the high-pressure air at the bottom to lift the piece of paper. Now, you can scale this test on a larger level and have the same effect!

Aircraft wings take advantage of this principle along with other clever techniques to attain lift. Not only that but if you add a few moving sections in the tail and wings of the plane, you can cause the plane to change directions.

These incremental changes in aircraft design gave us the recipe for flight and paved the way for modern aviation. However, in order to have sustained flight, we had to tackle another big problem: power.

England’s First Powered Flight

The second important invention that created aviation as we know it today was the birth of the compact engine. Humans had been leveraging animals to pull a series of levers to power their mechanical inventions, but the invention of the steam engine and later, the combustible engine, truly changed humanity.

Steam engines were simple, all you needed was a fuel source like coal, wood, or any other material that burned hot. The heat was used to boil water which created steam, the steam was forced through pressurised pipes that went into a cylinder with a piston.

In fact, the first-ever powered flight was achieved by John Stringfellow in a small town called Chard, England. The plane in question was a large and ridiculous contraption but it managed to achieve flight for a few seconds!

However, the important thing to note here is that this flight was unmanned. That is right! The first powered flight was conducted in a flying machine that we would today refer to as a drone; and at the heart of this was a complex steam engine.

It became quickly apparent that steam engines, although powerful, were not the right fit for flying aircraft. Steam engines were touted as a revolutionary invention but they had a lot of drawbacks, the biggest being their size. Steam engines required constant heat and they weren’t as efficient when they were scaled down.

This is where the internal combustion engine comes in. Due to the advances in our understanding of fossil fuels, engineers took a keen interest in building an efficient and compact engine that could run on gasoline. This engine would be the basis of modern transportation and would serve aircraft and vehicles for at least three decades!

The Wright Brothers

To be fair, there were many names before the Wright brothers and each person contributed a piece of what would result in the first sustainable flight. Orville and Wilbur Wright were brothers who, despite not having a formal diploma or degree, managed to build the first aircraft after numerous iterations.

Both brothers had a technical mindset and were curious enough to not just ponder upon problems, but to also test them out in the real world. This curiosity and eagerness to learn were the key reasons why the Wright brothers are known in history today.

Orville and Wilbur Wright sought inspiration from nature. They looked at how birds achieved flight. They noticed that despite having extra weight, these creatures were able to easily glide across the skies by keeping their wings at a certain angle.

This gave the brothers an idea: instead of going directly for flight, they wanted to first solve the problem of control.

After all, what good is flight when you can’t control the direction of the aircraft as it flies? The previous inventions were all unmanned and the ones that were manned only achieved a few seconds of flight without any control. These aircraft were usually anchored to the ground and then pulled back in – some of the unmanned aircraft also crash-landed because of a lack of control.

The brothers began experimenting with different aircraft designs that started with basic kites. They wanted to learn how wind affects different shapes and the effect of the wind when one side of the kite was pulled inward. These rudimentary experiments were crucial in developing the first controllable flight system.

After several iterations, the brothers then started to scale up their designs. Some of these designs were unmanned and were used in various tests to figure out the best way to control the aircraft. This is when the brothers came up with an ingenious way to control the direction of the aircraft.

The first iteration resulted in the hip cradle, a crude design that allowed the pilots to shift their weight from side to side, thereby engaging the wires that were connected to the wing tip of the aircraft.

The wing design was also the world’s first fixed-wing system in a light aircraft. The brothers continued to evolve the fixed-wing design to make it more efficient, and they also started to cut down on the added weight of the aircraft to make it even lighter. Keep in mind that the engine alone weighed 60-70kgs which is why the rest of the plane had to be light for longer flights.

After the first successful flight, the brothers quickly began working on the second and third iterations of their aircraft. This is when they also invented another breakthrough: three-axis control.

With a three-axis control, the plane could not only go side by side, but it could also dip front to back which allowed for far greater control than any previous aircraft. In fact, the three-axis control is still used in light aircraft today and is the basis of modern aviation!

History of Light Aircraft Flying in England

Light aircraft have been at the centre of aviation from the very beginning. Interestingly, the earlier light aircraft designs, whether in the form of gliders, fixed-wing, or flex-wing aircraft, remain to this day and are much more efficient and effective!

While all earlier aircraft were termed “light aircraft”, today, the meaning of light aircraft is different because of how far we have come! With the advent of very large passenger and cargo planes, it has become important to differentiate the types of aircraft.

Today, light aircraft are characterised as having a single engine with a flex or fixed-wing system. The planes are also remarkably lighter than commercial planes and are nimbler in the air due to their compact size and tighter aerodynamics.

Here is a year-by-year history of light aircraft in England:

1903: Genesis of Flight

After the successful flight by the Wright brothers, it became apparent that aviation was indeed a possible feat and that further iterations to the original design by the Wrights could lead to sustainable flight in the future. The news of the successful flight circled the world, and this sparked a huge interest in a lot of engineers in every developing country.

For example, in England, many private engineers began to already develop better and more efficient aircraft designs but unfortunately, they were limited by the number of resources to bring their ideas to life. This was the case until the first world war that truly changed everything.

After World War I, the military was left with a huge stockpile of damaged or decommissioned aircraft. These aircraft might not have been fit to fly, but they had components that could be recycled. These components were sold cheaply, and it is what allowed the budding engineering and aviation community in England to build private aircraft.

These private planes were a huge hit in local communities, and it didn’t take long for people to form flying clubs for enthusiasts.

1910: Flight Clubs

Nearly a decade after the war, aeroplanes had become the centre of attention for many hobbyists that wanted to fly. This interest sparked the birth of the first-ever aero club called the Royal Aero Club. Founded in 1910, this club played a pivotal role in building the aviation industry and culture in England.

The 1920s: The Birth of the Aviation Industry in England

The popularity and sustainability of light aircraft made it clear that this industry could be capitalised and commercialised.

In the 1920s, private investors wanted to dip into this future technology and leverage the thrill-seeking aspect of flying. It became apparent that for the industry to survive, England needed its own array of aircraft companies that could build sustainable and high-quality aircraft. There were a few iconic companies but among them was a giant by the name of de Havilland.

Spearheaded by Geoffery de Havilland, the Havilland Aircraft Company (HAC) played a huge role in bringing about a revolution in the England airspace. Although not the first, the HAC was known for introducing truly revolutionary aircraft that set the standard for modern aviation. For example, the company is fondly known for the invention of the DH.60 Moth, the Mosquito, and a string of other successful aircraft.

The 1940s: Post-War Progress

During World War II, the aviation industry went on at a slow pace but after the war, things started to pick up for the better! Just like before, English engineers and aviators continued working on newer and better designs that would not just increase the duration of the flight but also increase efficiency tenfold.

The light aircraft industry grew to such an extent that a separate entity by the name of the British Light Aircraft Association was formed to oversee the interests of light aircraft pilots and owners.

Modern Day Aviation

The aviation industry continued to see year-over-year improvements with many new companies introducing better designs for sustainable flight. Of course, it didn’t take long for commercial aviation operations to flourish as well!

However, even to this day, the roots of aviation in England are closely tied to light aircraft. There are countless aviation-related clubs, organisations, schools, and companies in England, and each offers a range of services with light aircraft at the centre!

The hobbyist culture in aviation is on the rise in England and there is no better time than now to get enrolled at a flight school to begin your aviation journey.

Flight schools like Sherburn Aero Club not only offer premium flight training and services, but they also respect the heritage and understand the importance of aviation in England so you will be joining a long line of successful pilots when you enrol at Sherburn Aero Club!


Sherburn Aero Club, which has been operational since 1964, is the ideal place for most of your training and flying needs. It is one of the largest flying clubs in the North of England and also one of the largest in the country.

If you wish to begin your career in aviation or wish to take to the skies as a hobby, Sherburn’s flight training school offers private and commercial licences, along with pilot medicals to ensure a smooth journey going forward.

With a large fleet of new aircraft and an airfield refurbishment with new runways, hangars, and an extended clubhouse, we cater to brand-new flyers who have just started their journey to the skies, as well as seasoned flyers who have been operating aircraft for decades.

Sherburn offers a dedicated day-long Flight Radiotelephony Operator’s Licence (FRTOL) course for those wishing to get the certification, running the first Sunday of every month.

For those who wish to experience the thrill of a flight for fun or to help fuel their aviation dreams, Sherburn offers experience flights for the newbie, as well as the veteran. The flight experience option is also available for people who wish to take to the skies for special occasions, even if they aren’t into aviation in the long run.

In addition to that, if you are looking for a hangarage for your own aircraft, need servicing or repairs, want to buy a new aircraft or aviation equipment, or are just looking to enjoy and watch the aircraft, Sherburn Aero Club is the place to be.

Call us at 01977 682 674​​​, email us at flightdesk@sherburnaeroclub.com, or message us via our online contact form for more information on light aircraft, training requirements, licencing procedures, as well as experience flights and pilot training at Sherburn.

Photo by Norbert Braun on Unsplash 



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