Otto Lilienthal spent most of his life studying everything from Newtonian physics to bird anatomy in the interest of one day achieving glider-based flight. Then sometime around his 21st birthday, when young men feel their most invincible, he decided it was time to get some street cred. He and his brother Gustav slapped together a pair of wings out of sticks and canvas. They strapped the homemade wings to Otto's back, and then they found the biggest jumping off point that they could.
"No wicker basket? Are you mad!?!"
Naturally, Otto sank like a ... well, like a big German dude with some fake-ass wings strapped to his back. He crashed and burned and damn near got himself killed for his efforts. While the apparatus failed, for whatever reason the takeoff method still seemed like Lilienthal's best bet for success. Which means that the man crashed and damn near died, only to find another really high spot to jump from as soon as his bones were knit.
He kept at it until, somehow, he finally succeeded. He found a set of wings and a flying method that actually resulted in honest to goodness gliding. Otto would go on to create flying contraptions that were not only capable of inducing priapism in hardcore steampunk enthusiasts ...
... but more importantly, actually flew. Lilienthal set world records for sustained flights. His later models, particularly the Maihohe-Rhinow glider, were able to fly distances of nearly 1,200 feet. Considering that his predecessors in the field barely registered in the double digits, Lilienthal was clearly onto something.
If asked his secret to success, Lilienthal would no doubt list the following components:
A) Find a really, really steep hill.
B) Strap some shit to your back.
C) Try as hard as you can to die, and fail.
He was pretty much the Johnny Knoxville of the German Empire.
When your car decides it just isn't going to go another inch along the highway, you're usually going to be fine, and can either walk to the next gas station or call AAA or something. When you're flying over hostile Korean territory, however, you're basically out of luck.
Lieutenant Joe Logan was flying a routine mission in 1952, protecting his leader, Brigadier General James Robinson Risner, from harm while returning from a bombing run. As fate would have it, Logan did his job as a human shield and took some flak, causing his plane to lose almost all of its fuel. Risner, realizing that a bailout 60 miles away from base into hostile Korean territory would likely be fatal for Logan, considered his options. There were none -- they were in separate planes, and the other one had lost power. It's the kind of situation that could only be solved with cartoon logic.
"I learned everything I know from the Red Baron ... no, not that one, the beagle."
So, he just went with that. Attempting a completely unprecedented and utterly insane maneuver, Risner advised Logan to shut off his engine and then, probably thinking of the last time he had to push some honker 1950s car up the street, flew over to Logan and rammed the nose of his plane into Logan's tailpipe.
"Just the tip!!!"
This somehow did not cause both planes to immediately explode and go spinning to the ground below. The attached planes both remained aloft, as Risner tried to steer his plane with another entire plane crammed into his face, while being tossed around by turbulence.
Setting the all-time record for machinery ass-to-mouth, Risner's plane somehow successfully pushed Logan's over 60 miles through the air into friendly territory, where Logan could bail out. Sadly, Logan landed in water and drowned after becoming tangled in his parachute lines.
"-- and they didn't even call the next day."
We really could put Chuck Yeager's whole career on here. He spent a lifetime flying the sort of missions that would make a normal man's testicles crawl into his eye sockets. By age 22, Yeager had shot down over a dozen fighter planes and had 13 confirmed kills. Then he became a test pilot, whose job it was to literally fly things until they broke down at about a thousand miles an hour, just to see what would happen.
One time, while teaching at astronaut school, Yeager was flying an NF-104 -- a jet fighter already capable of going twice the speed of sound, with an extra rocket booster strapped onto it to make it go faster. It was designed to get up over 120,000 feet, 90 percent of the way to outer space (like we said, they trained astronauts in it).
So while flying one of these, the plane spun out of control, killing the engines in the process. Yeager was forced to parachute to safety, but "safety" might be the wrong word, considering that this caused him to sail through a geyser of his own burning jet fuel.
"Just be grateful I didn't drag you through a storm cloud."
The fuel burned through his suit, which was full of oxygen, and his freaking head caught on fire. Though no one knows how, he managed to put the fact that he was suffering from a case of Ghost Rider skull out of his mind long enough to figure out a way to unscrew the oxygen-filled space helmet he'd been wearing, partially melting his left index finger in the process. At this point, we'd like to remind the reader that all of this was happening as Chuck was hurtling toward Earth at about 60 miles per hour, with a partially malfunctioning parachute.
Incredibly, Yeager pried the helmet off and stuck the landing in the middle of the desert. With a partially melted hand, he packed the suit away neatly and properly before making the hike to a nearby highway. A passing motorist who witnessed the crash was the first one to find Yeager standing more or less at attention with his helmet tucked into the crook of his elbow like Buck Friggin' Rogers. The motorist, a civilian, took one look at Yeager's injuries and threw up by the side of the road.
"Was it something you ate?"
But Yeager healed up just fine, and went on to bomb the hell out of Vietnam for a couple of years and basically continue to fly around not giving a damn. He's considered the godfather of pilots, and if you ever doubted that for a moment, consider this: If you've ever noticed that, on any flight you've ever been on, all pilots basically talk the same, there's a pretty good reason for that. It's because they're all doing an imitation of Chuck Yeager's voice. Really.
For more from Gabriel, you can follow him on Twitter, and he'd really like it if you checked out his friends' band The Ranks. Will Millar's first horror novel, Infernal Machines, is coming this August, or you can just follow him on Twitter.
For more people who fought reason and lost, check out 6 People Who Died In Order To Prove A (Retarded) Point. Or learn how you can kick gravity in the balls in 6 Death-Defying Stunts That Are Secretly Easy to Do.