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This Little-known German Aviator Inspired the Wright Brothers

Otto Lilienthal

Mike Downs is the author of The Flying Man: Otto Lilienthal, The World’s First Pilot, a nonfiction picture book biography about a determined yet little-known German aviator who inspired the Wright Brothers.  Kirkus Reviews says that The Flying Man is a “soaring tribute to a pioneering German aviator who had a dream and the perseverance to achieve it…”

The Flying Man - Best Book of the Year

Mike recently sat down to answer three key questions about the book—his fascinating answers are below:

1. How did you discover the story of Otto Lilienthal?

I’ve spent my life since age 15 as a pilot, so I’ve always been interested in everything aviation. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, probably after another visit to Kitty Hawk, that I began to wonder… what had gone on BEFORE the Wright Brothers? Most of us are familiar with the Wright Brothers and their amazing accomplishments, but had there been any true pilots before them? Anyone who had gotten airborne again and again in a controllable aircraft without an engine? Curiosity drove me to find the answer, which took MUCH longer than I had expected. The journey took me down a wonderful path of research into early aviation and how it had developed. It ultimately led me to the fascinating life story of Otto Lilienthal. 

2. Why do you feel it’s important for young readers to know the story of Otto?

Otto Lilienthal is a brilliant example of making dreams come true through hard work and dedication—even dreams that seem foolish to others. It teaches young readers to work hard for what they want, and shows that it is indeed possible to reach for the sky.

Otto tenaciously followed his dreams through the doubt, skepticism, and ridicule of much of society. Despite this, he remained unwavering in his goal and developed a step-by-step plan to accomplish his dream, even though it took more than 25 years!

3. How does Otto’s story continue to have relevance today?

Otto’s story is one of determination, willpower, and reevaluating his methods after each failure. He never said to himself, “It can’t be done.” He only thought, “Why didn’t it work this time, and what changes do I need to make it work?”

It’s easy for us to be self-defeating and give up after a failure. But learning to reevaluate our failures, make changes, and put in the work necessary to create success is a valuable lesson that has relevance to each and every one of us throughout our lives.