A Brief History of Aircraft Technology
by Crista Worthy
What child hasn’t dreamed of being able to jump into the air and fly like a bird? Beginning thousands of years ago, people tried to fly by strapping feathers or wings onto their arms before jumping off towers. Death or at least serious injury was the usual result. Humans would have to find another way to get into the air.
Kites and Lighter-Than-Air Flight
The kite, invented in China about 2,500 years ago, was probably the first man-made aircraft. Some kites even carried men aloft. The Chinese also figured out — hundreds of years before Europeans did — that hot air would make a balloon rise.
After centuries of futile attempts at lighter-than-air flight, the year 1783 produced numerous milestones. Both manned and unmanned balloons flew successfully in France using hot air or hydrogen. But a balloon is at the mercy of the winds. The first powered airship flew in 1852; it was steam-driven. An electric airship followed in 1884. In 1901, the famed Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont flew a non-rigid airship (blimp) around the Eiffel Tower. Meanwhile, rigid airships (zeppelins), pioneered by the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, soon proved capable of carrying both passengers and cargo long distances — even across oceans.
Late in the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci wrote about and sketched designs of numerous aerial devices, including ornithopters, fixed-wing gliders, rotorcraft and parachutes. Whether he flew any of them is unknown, but he did say, “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
During the 19th century, numerous wing-flapping-type aircraft were developed, none of which worked. But, in 1799, after years of studying the physics of flight, Sir George Cayley elucidated the concept of the modern airplane as a fixed-wing machine with separate systems for lift, propulsion and control. He identified the four vector forces that influence an aircraft: thrust, lift, drag and weight. In 1853, a glider of his design, launched from a hill, was the first to carry an adult in flight. Much work in gliders followed during the late 19th century, most notably by Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute, and culminating with the Wright brothers, who flew their first glider in 1900.
Powered Fixed-Wing Flight
According to the Smithsonian Institution and Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the Wrights made the first sustained, controlled, powered heavier-than-air manned flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. A simple hangar, constructed of timber in 1902, served to protect the original Wright Flyer before it even flew. The Wrights invented wing warping for roll control and a steerable rear rudder to control yaw. Alberto Santos-Dumont added ailerons to his aircraft and flew with them in 1907. Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel the following year.
The first person to successfully mass-market aircraft of his own design for sale was Glenn Curtiss, who also invented the seaplane. Many of these were sold to the military. Airplanes had no sooner been invented than they were used for war. Italy used them in 1911, and they were widely utilized during WWI.
Technology Takes Off
After the war, barnstormers flew across the U.S., giving many Americans their first airplane ride. In 1925, Clyde Cessna, Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech formed the Travel Air Manufacturing Company in Wichita, Kansas. Each man later formed his own company. Beech designed the fast, sleek, retractable-gear Beech Model 17 “Staggerwing” in 1932. Later designs included the venerable Bonanza and twin-engine Baron. Many WWII aviators trained in Stearman aircraft. And, after the war, thousands of veterans earned their wings with the G.I. Bill and bought Cessnas.
Jimmy Doolittle invented instrument flight in 1929. Thousands of WWII pilots trained in Link trainers (also invented in 1929, by Ed Link) to learn how to fly without visual references. Driven by the desperation of WWII, ever-faster airplanes were produced. By the end of the war, the jet engine was in use.
The 1950s again saw exponential leaps in aircraft technology, as U.S. test pilots pushed the envelope past the sound barrier. By 1967, the X-15 set the air speed record for an aircraft at 4,534 mph, or Mach 6.1. Other remarkable military aircraft included the SR-71 and U-2 spy planes. Commercial passenger service ramped up as well, progressing from the DC-3 to ever-larger and faster airliners built by McDonnell-Douglas, Boeing, and eventually Airbus and others.
Navigation has improved as well during the 20th century, from pilotage and dead reckoning with compass and charts, to Loran, VORs, DME, glideslopes for approaches and finally GPS, now augmented by large moving map displays, synthetic vision and even heads-up-displays, all affordable for general aviation aircraft. Smart technology has migrated to aircraft hangars as well, providing superior protection, convenience and energy savings. Soon, commercial flights into space will begin. And someday, people may even stand on Mars.
- Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies, by Lawrence Goldstone, 2015.