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Sir George Cayley’s series of gliders, which achieved brief wing-borne hops around 1849, were the first heavier-than-air (i.e., non-balloon) man-carrying aircraft based on published scientific principles. After that, pioneers like Jean Marie Le Bris, John J. Montgomery, Otto Lilienthal, Percy Pilcher, Octave Chanute, and Augustus Moore Herring constructed gliders to advance aviation.

Lilienthal was the first to use rising air to extend his flight and to make multiple successful flights, eventually totaling over 2,000. Daniel Maloney was the first to demonstrate controlled flight at high altitude using a balloon-launched glider launched from 4,000 feet in 1905, using a Montgomery tandem-wing glider.

As they worked toward powered flight, the Wright brothers built a series of three manned gliders after conducting initial tests with a kite. In 1911, they removed the motor from one of their later designs and resumed glider testing.

Under the guidance of Rhön-Rossitten, recreational gliding flourished in Germany between the wars. In the US, the Schweizer siblings of Elmira, New York, produced sport sailplanes to satisfy the new need. In the 1930s, sailplanes continued to develop, and sport gliding has emerged as the primary use for gliders. Gliders began to be used for cross-country flight as their performance improved, and they now regularly fly hundreds or even more kilometers per day, depending on the weather.