For those humans graced with the desire to "slip the surly bonds of earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings," the last 100 years have been a really, really good time to be alive! It is likely that humanoids, jealous of the ability of winged creatures to fly, have longed to join them in the air for well over 100,000 years. Those of us who have inherited from our forebears a true passion for winged flight should occasionally pause for a moment to consider how incredibly lucky we are to live in an era when so many aerial possibilities are available to us.
It is so easy for us to feel that airplanes have been around forever. Indeed, for all of us alive today, airplanes have been around our entire lives. However, the ability for humans to freely navigate the air something we take completely for granted these days began a mere 220 years ago with the first hot air balloons. The first successful human flight in a powered, winged machine credited to the Wright Brothers was so recent that there are people still alive today who were alive when the historic Kitty Hawk flight took place just over 100 years ago.
When we think about how far aviation has come since the early pioneers proved the viability of self-sustaining flight, it is all too easy to not fully appreciate what an incredibly short blip of human history this development has occured in. All it took was a critical mass of new technologies coming together at the beginning of the 20th century, and our species' 100,000+ years of longing exploded into a century of aerial (and even extra-terrestrial) exploration that boggles the mind when one tries to take it all in at once.
Airplanes were 'homebuilt' projects from the start, and although most planes built between 1910-1990 came from factories, today more airplanes are built in private homes than in all the factories combined. Aviation has truly come full-circle in this regard, and the designing, building, ownership and enjoyment of a flying machine is now more accessible to the common man than ever before.
Although homebuilt airplane technologies have matured to the point where hobbyists can build personal 'rocket ships' capable of cruising high over the earth at hundreds of miles per hour, I am personally more fond of aircraft that are capable of flying very slowly. It is in the ultra-slow regime of flight, with the wind in my face, that I feel the most like I am flying. Put me in an enclosed cockpit, with the earth slipping by serenely behind a piece of plexiglas, and for me the experience becomes too similar to watching it on TV. Make no mistake -- I'll still love it, but I'd much rather feel the experience vividly with all my senses than just watch it go by behind glass.
Slow flight is also where we find our ability to soar invisible currents of rising air without the requirement of a noisy powerplant, making possible flight which is more bird-like than any other form (see the hang gliding section of this site). It also happens to be the type of flight that I and many others can afford most easily!
Winged human flight started with experimentation with gliders in the 1800's, and then progressed to powered gliders. This same progression started again in the 1970's, when hang gliders enjoyed a renaissance and soon were fitted with engines to become the basis for our modern ultralights. We may feel so much more sophisticated than the early pioneers with our advanced materials and technologies, but the awesome thrill of the basic forms of flight that they enjoyed in the 'early days' remains undiminished for all who care to sample it today.
Sometimes I wonder how my counterpart 100 years from now will feel about the flying machines I built and the fun I had with them. Although aviation a century from now will surely exceed our wildest dreams, I bet there will be a simple glider in the future aviator's garage, probably with an exotic, lightweight and silent propulsion system for getting up to soaring altitude (if personal aviation doesn't get legislated out of existence, that is). Somehow, I don't see this basic, bird-like form of flight changing very much.
Question gravity. It's something you feel in your bones, even if they don't happen to be hollow.