The forerunner of the fixed-wing aircraft is the kite. Whereas a fixed-wing aircraft relies on its forward speed to create airflow over the wings, a kite is tethered to the ground and relies on the wind blowing over its wings to provide lift. Kites were the first kind of aircraft to fly, and were invented in China around 500 BC. Much aerodynamic research was done with kites before test aircraft, wind tunnels, and computer modelling programs became available.
The first heavier-than-air craft capable of controlled free-flight were gliders. A glider designed by Cayley carried out the first true manned, controlled flight in 1853.
Practical, powered, fixed-wing aircraft (the aeroplane or airplane) were invented by Wilbur and Orville Wright. Besides the method of propulsion, fixed-wing aircraft are in general characterized by their wing configuration. The most important wing characteristics are:
- Number of wings – Monoplane, biplane, etc.
- Wing support – Braced or cantilever, rigid, or flexible.
- Wing planform – including aspect ratio, angle of sweep, and any variations along the span (including the important class of delta wings).
- Location of the horizontal stabilizer, if any.
- Dihedral angle – positive, zero, or negative (anhedral).
- A variable geometry aircraft can change its wing configuration during flight.
A flying wing has no fuselage, though it may have small blisters or pods. The opposite of this is a lifting body, which has no wings, though it may have small stabilizing and control surfaces.
Wing-in-ground-effect vehicles may be considered as fixed-wing aircraft. They "fly" efficiently close to the surface of the ground or water, like conventional aircraft during takeoff. An example is the Russian ekranoplan (nicknamed the "Caspian Sea Monster"). Man-powered aircraft also rely on ground effect to remain airborne with a minimal pilot power, but this is only because they are so underpowered — in fact, the airframe is capable of flying higher.