We will forever be tempted by the sky. Before we mastered flight, we tried all sorts of crazy things. Even after we’ve worked it out, we still try weird ways to reach the heavens. This is a collection of attempts from all throughout history.
10Paolo Guidotti (Early 1600s)
Lots of Renaissance artists dabbled in flight, though some took looked at it from more literal perspectives—as in, people flying like birds as opposed to using flying machines—than others.
Paolo Guidotti carved wings out of whalebone and covered them with feathers. His public demonstration saw him crash through a roof and break his thigh.
9Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari (1000)
The quote: “Oh, people! No one has made this discovery before. Now I will fly before your eyes. The most important thing on Earth is to fly to the skies! That I will do now.” He then threw himself off the top of a mosque with wooden wings, falling to his death. Oops.
8Franz Reichelt (1912)
Desperate to win a hefty prize for inventing a lightweight parachute, Reichelt spent his days working on a parachute suit. His tests with dummies didn’t go well. Even when he directly tested the device with himself, it didn’t work.
Chalking these shortcomings up to the short distance he was dropping from, he announced a public demonstration wherein he threw himself off the top of the Eiffel Tower. Not only did this fail, but it also killed him.
7Larry Walters (1982)
Walters took to the skies over LA with forty-five helium-filled balloons tied to a lawn chair. This worked, though things went awry when he entered federal air space.
Originally planning to use a B.B. gun to pop balloons and slowly touch down, the gun fell overboard, and he became entangled in powerlines. He survived but was heavily fined.
6Dan Boria (2015)
Walters influenced many people to recreate his balloon adventure, but few achieved the same level of notoriety as Dan Boria. In a promotional stunt for his cleaning business, he tied one-hundred helium balloons to a chair.
Intending to fly over a near-by rodeo he found himself off-track and rising much faster than planned. He ultimately had to parachute to safety and was fined thousands of dollars.
5Abbas Ibn Firnas (852)
Medieval attempts at flight often involved tower jumping, or leaping from the tops of high buildings. Firnas’ example isn’t exactly unique: he constructed wings of silk and covered himself in feathers (it was commonly speculated that feathers were largely responsible for flight).
Rather than becoming street pizza, his wings served as an almost-parachute, slowing his fall just enough to injure his back. Why didn’t it work? At the time it was marked up to a lack of a tail at the time.
4Yuan Huangtou (559)
Chinese emperor Wenxuan forced several prisoners to be tied to kites and flown. This killed all but one, Yuan Huangtou, who was able to fly a great distance before safely landing. This is considered by many to be the first successful human flight. Despite this achievement, Huangtou was still executed.
3Elmer of Malmesbury (1125)
Very little of this monk’s history survive outside of his attempt to fly. Believing the story of Daedalus to be real, he fashioned wings for his arms and legs and threw himself from the top of an abbey.
He glided six-hundred feet before crashing and breaking both of his legs, leaving him injured for life. By his own account his failure was due to, once again, a lack of a tail.
2Lagari Hasan Celebi (1633)
Looking to get in good with the sultan, this Ottoman built a seven-winged rocket. Before launching himself with about one-hundred and forty pounds of gunpowder (!), he said, “I am going to talk to Jesus!” Rather than exploding on the spot (which would have sped up the meeting with Jesus, we imagine) he crashed into the sea shortly after the launch. He survived uninjured.
1James Miller (1993)
In what would prove to be the first of many similar stunts, James Miller used a home-made paraglider to circle Ceasar’s Palace during the heavyweight boxing match between Evander Holyfield II and Riddick Bowe.
After about ten minutes he descended into the arena but botched the landing, finding himself tangled in the ropes. This cased a twenty-minute delay in the match. Fans and security staff attacked Miller shortly after freeing him.
The strange moment fueled future stunts and made Miller a minor celebrity until his suicide in 2002. By all accounts, he did such flights simply for the fun of it.