It seems humans always wanted to fly. We see this dream captured in ancient Egyptian scrolls and in myths like that of Icarus and Daedalus. Many great men pursued air travel. Pioneers faced three essential challenges: first, develop lift to rise into the air, then sustain that lift, and finally control it. Early technologies focused on running down a slope to gain enough speed to create lift. In 1488, Leonardo da Vinci produced many studies on flying machines; some of those models were tested in modern day with a positive outcome. Sir George Cayley in 1849 pioneered heavier-than-air flight, testing many wing designs and building several gliders—including the first manned glider. In 1891, Otto Lienthal, often called the “Father of Aviation,” flew his gliders and controlled them. Samuel Pierpont Langley was the first to attempt to add powerplant to a glider, but unfortunately he gave up his pursuit, as it was unsuccessful when he attempted to fly his powered glider with the press watching in 1896. Other pioneers didn’t directly experiment; Octave Chanute, for 1893, carefully studied aviation history and spread information and lessons learned from others, which helped spur further innovation.
Despite the long list of early aviation experimenters, no one was successful in mastering all three challenges of heavier-than-air controlled flight—until the Wright Brothers. The Wright Brothers came at the right time and the right place. They took everyone’s research and development, and combined it with their own unique, mechanical backgrounds as bicycle engineers. They built a wind tunnel to experiment their different models and different wing shapes, which let them test theories at a relatively low cost. Finally, in 1903, after thousands of experiments, they added a 12HP engine to one of their models, and tested it in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. One of the brothers flew for a mere 12 seconds, but it propelled aviation into a new era! Controlled flight was possible!
By making the first successful heavier-than-air controlled flight, the Wright Brothers helped prove that air travel was realistic. They conducted additional flights where the only reason for landing was until they ran out of fuel. The Wright Brothers not only contributed to the progress of mastering controlled flight, but they proved to the world that aviation was here to stay! After witnessing human-controlled, heavier-than-air flight in action, the army signed contracts with the Wright Brothers. They made the pursuit of air travel legitimate.
Then came the airmail service, which spurred advancement in navigation technologies and human transport, and cemented aviation’s place in the minds of the government, the private sector and the public. It began when the United States Post Office (USPO) wanting to connect all main business centers to deliver mail faster than the existing train service. With the help of the Army Signal Corps, which lent planes and pilots, initiatives were taken to commence an airmail service. Routes between New York and Washing DC were established first, and then expanded all the way to California. Mail was being transported in combination of train by night and plane by day, which improved the delivery time by 22 hours over trains. But it was one thing to get the mail to its destination; the USPO still had to attract public to use it. It was expensive at the beginning, and unreliable.
The USPO wanted regular delivery of mail, but the Army pilots refused to fly in poor weather conditions. This led the Post Office to hire civilian pilots and mechanics. The De Havilland DH-4 was popular and used in those days to increase safety, capacity and distance. Still, pilots in those days had to fly “by the seat of their pants,” using dead reckoning for navigation as they had no instruments, radios or navigational aids. Forced landings were frequent and fatalities common. In 1920, radio stations were installed to inform pilots of weather on their route helped them greatly. In March 1921, to prove the viability of airmail, the head of the Post Office Air Service, Otto Prager, flew across the country to deliver mail from New York to San Francisco in record time: an astounding 33 hours and 20 minutes. This led to further investment in navigation aids and more faith in the service. Airmail pilots were now flying night and day, which beat the train by 3 days!
Congress was impressed, and the airmail service was expanding. Ground facilities, additional landing fields, towers, beacons were installedand planes were better improved with navigational lights and light instruments were all improved upon. With the 1925 “Kelly Act,” commercial aviation began, as it allowed the private sector to bid for lucrative post office contracts. This act, which was the first major piece of legislation created by Congress that would affect the aviation industry, also secured aviation’s place in the private sector, as it now generated an income for the carriers. New routes and airlines were created. An industry was being born!
The entrance of the private sector boosted aircraft design, leading to more efficient, more powerful and faster planes that flew further and higher. The normal fabric and wood biplanes were being replaced by metal. Most importantly passenger cabins were introduced. In 1929, passengers could travel from coast to coast in planes that were also carrying mail. Even though passenger flight expanded slowly due to the noise, uncomfortable and slow planes, a lot of resources were put into attracting morepassengers, which led to improvements and more comfortable aircraft models. The success of the airmail service led to commercial flight and the aviation industry, as we know it today. As Charles I Stanton, an airmail pilot, said “We planted four seeds…They were airways, communications, navigation aids, and multi-engine aircraft…They are the corner stones of on which our present world-wide transport structure is built, and they came, one by one, out of our experience in daily, uninterrupted flying of the mail.”
Wars always played a big role in the development of aviation, but World War II was crucial in advancing aviation. Long ago in ancient Chinasimple techniques were used in which a man was strapped to a kite to observe enemies from great heights. Other countries, used balloons as scare tactics, reconnaissance and strategic bombings, but they were easily shot down due to their size and slow speed. While not much had progressed between the Wright Brothers’ first flight and World War I, aircrafts were used mainly for reconnaissance. People were skeptical due to the unreliability of planes, but towards the end of the war, strategic aerial bombing proved that aviation could help force an enemy into submission. By World War II, it was clear that if you controlled the skies, you won the war!
WWII spurred a great deal of advancement in technology, aircrafts and attitudes towards aviation. Planes were developed to drop bombs as well as to shoot down other planes. Fighter planes were designed for better maneuverability, speed and endurance. Flying the Hump was a mission proving that aircraft could provide supplies no matter what difficult conditions laid ahead and cemented the value or aviation. Other airlifts sustained troops throughout the war, keeping people alive and advancing Allied positions. The English used radar systems to successfully thwart a German attack on their soil.
WWII even changed the way the navy fought. It was the first time that naval ships did not see each other or fire a shot; it was all planes doing the fighting. They even developed torpedo bomber to attack naval vessels! Furthermore, fighting in the Pacific required airplanes to be able to take off from the middle of the ocean so they could attack island nations. Aircraft carriers were hugely important to establishing a presence in the Pacific by island hopping with the aircraft carriers. When Japan was bombed on their own heartland, it created a big blow for the Axis. The Pacific presence of naval aviators paved the way for the B-29 bombers to finish the job, too. As the aircraft carriers sailed through the Pacific, they built airstrips on the islands so that larger and/or more strategic planes could use. The B-29 itself was a marvel. It could fly nonstop to Tokyo and back. It had a pressurized cabin, advanced navigation and revolutionary bomber technology.
While military motivations have often inspired innovations, WWII was particularly important to aviation advancement. The new technologies, aircrafts and success stories combined to prove to the world that airpowercould defeat an enemy, had incredible strategic opportunities for countries, and couldn’t be ignored. WWII proved that aviation deserved further advancement.
One of the greatest advancements in aviation that came at the end of WWII was the jet engine. Power plants in the beginning were heavy and inefficient fuel consumers, water-cooled and limited. A lot of research and development went into the power plant, as thrust generated by the engine is a great component of flight. The jet technology began in the development of pilotless aircrafts and missiles in WWII. Some may debate that the first jet aircraft produced was the ME-262, created by the Germans towards the end of the war. The model was later advanced but primarily used for military purposes. After much research, jet tankers were developed that could perform aerial refueling, which was particularly helpful because jet aircrafts used a lot of fuel. Then, in 1950, William Allen saw a De Havilland Comet at a British air show and was convinced that future of the commercial airline lied in jets. He transplanted the technology to the private sector with great success. Jet airlines flew twice as fast as propeller planes, and jet-powered planes carried more passengers than ever before at higher altitudes, which had less turbulence. In the 1960s, the jet-age was universally adopted as all major airlines replaced their piston-engines with jet aircrafts. Runways were upgraded to accommodate the bigger planes, and Air Traffic Controllers became increasingly important as the planes were flying faster and needed separation. The jet engine not only led to the flight technology that we still use today, but it also advanced aviation’s supporting systems—like airports and ATC.
We take flying for granted today. In a few years anyone today with appropriate training and education can fly jets. In many ways, human development has grown side by side with aviation. As planes flew further the world shrank. Trade, economy, cultures are blending, military presences have been established across countries, and travel to practically anywhere on the planet is possible! There have been much advancement, but these four stand out. The Wright Brothers proved controlled heavier-than-air flight was possible. The airmail service led to public and private acceptance of aviation, and introduced commercial flight. World War II demonstrated the global import of aviation important and proved the industry deserved further advancement. Last but not least, the jet engine technology led to comfortable, safe air travel and the supporting systems we know today. From the moment the first controlled flight was made to the full adoption of jet power, aviation has changed the world—and continues to do so every day.