History of Airplanes

A Brief Overview of General Aviation

Humans began tinkering with flight as early as 400BC, when the ancient Chinese first created the kite.  From there, early man attempted flight with wing-like structures attached to their arms, with disastrous results given that man's arm muscles are nothing like birds'.

But the fascination continued, and what we understand today began with the ingenuity of Leonardo da Vinci and his drawings on the Ornithopter, which never saw testing, but formed the basis of today's helicopter.  Hot Air Balloons were the real beginning to airplanes as we know them.


The Origins - Hot Air Balloons

Inventors Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier developed the hot air balloon, and in 1783, sheep were the first living passengers.  This flight, complete with a rooster and a duck, climbed to 6,000 feet and traveled more than a mile.  On November 21st of the same year, the world would see the first manned flight ever, when Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent ascended in a hot air balloon.

Work would continue on air-powered airships, as they were now dubbed, throught the 1800s. During the American Civil War, Ferdinand von Zeppelin volunteered with the Union Army and visited several balloon camps to learn about ballooning.  He returned to Germany to serve in the Franco-Prussian War and became obsessed with the idea of guidable flying balloons.  He believed airships were the only practical means of military strategy, and on his retirement from the army, devoted himself to developing such craft.

Zeppelin First FlightOn 2 July 1900, Zeppelin made the first flight with the LZ 1 over Lake Constance near Friedrichshafen in southern Germany. The airship rose from the ground and remained in the air for 20 minutes, but was wrecked in landing. In 1906, he made two successful flights at a speed of 30 miles per hour (48 km/h), and in 1907 attained a speed of 36 miles per hour (58 km/h).


Phase Two - Gliders

Cayley GliderGliders became the next step, lightweight devices that were guided by the motion of the human body.  For a span of fifty years (from 1799-1850), inventor strong>George Cayley developed and improved his glider design, changing the wing shape so the air currents would flow over them appropriately, testing bi-plane designs, and eventually determining that to fly appropriately, an aircraft would need some sort of engine or power assistance.

Yet it wouldn't be until the late 19th Century that true manned flight could occur.  In 1891, Otto Lillienthal, a German inventor, improved the glider concept and crafted a vehicle that could carry man over long ranges.  In 1899, he published a book on aerodynamics that the infamous Wright Brothers would later use for their developments.  The Wright brothers would also be inspired by Octave Chanute's 1894 book, Progress In Flying Machines.


1903 - The First Manned Flight

KittyHawkOrville and Wilbur Wright pioneered the airplane that we know.  After many years of studying previous flight attempts and technologies, they combined a light structure capable of staying aloft on the wind with a power engine.  The early engine they incorporated generated almost 12 horsepower./p>

KittyHawkLiveAt 10:35 a.m., on December 17, 1903, under the capable hands of Orville Wright, the Kitty Hawk lifted from level ground to the north of Big Devil Hill in North Carolina.  The plane weighed 605lbs and traveled 120 feet in 12 seconds.  For much of the afternoon on that infamous day, the two brothers took turns piloting their craft.

All 20th century developments were based on the initial Wright design.


Golden Age of Aviation

The years between World War I and World War II brought a great transformation to aeroplanes.  The evolved from low-powered biplanes made of wood into high powered mono-planes built out of aluminum.  Fighter pilots from WWI, now lacking an outlet for their skills, began conducting air shows to show off their abilities.  Amelia Earhart was one of these early "Barnstormers" and would later go on to noteriety as the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

In 1919, the world would see both the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and the first non-stop flight to do so.  John Alcock and Arthur Brown piloted a Vickers Vimy from Newfoundland to Ireland on June 14th.  Eight years later, in 1927, American Charles Lindburgh, flew The Spirit of St. Louis from Long Island to Paris, marking the first solo Atlantic flight.  He would receive the nation's highest military honor, The Medal of Honor, for this accomplishment.


World War II Contributions

For better or worse, war often brings change, and World War II was no exception to the world of avionics.  Quickly, it became obvious that the strategic upper hand came with airplanes that could both gain information on the oppositions' location as well as lead tactical strikes.  Here we see the era of the great Dog Fights -- aerial combat between the Axis' and Allies.  And of course, the significant destructive capabilities are recognized in the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the later bombings of Heroshima and Nagasaki.

Damaged B-17 In FlightBut the need to produce planes quickly led to better technologies.  All countries learned from this and used the techniques to get planes in the air as fast as possible.  The first air strikes began in World War II, a tactic of long-range bombers that is still in effect today.  And the notable B-17 Bomber made an enormous impact on design.  Not only could it fly long distances, but it also could defend itself in the air, and adding to those incredible feats, the bomber was so sturdy in design that it could survive enormous battle damage, which led to a rather mythical view of the massive plane. (Notice in the picture the tail is nearly completely severed from the body of the plane, and yet it still flew to safety.)

During this era  aeronautics also saw the development of the first jet-powered plane, the first cruise missles, and the first ballistic missles.  Ironically, Germany made these advancements, but the expense of flying a jet proved too much for the faltering nation, and the use was very seldom.  Helicopters also saw great advancement in this ear of war, finding themselves used in formation, and more frequently.


After the War

In the years following World War II, commercial aviation would see it's greatest improvements, in part, designed from a need to transport massive amounts of troops back home to families as quickly as possible.  Here we would see the development of the first commercial jet airliner, and the notorious Boeing 707, which founded the design known in passenger flight today.

In 1947, Chuck Yeagar broke the sound barrier by flying faster than the speed of sound, which opened the doors to the super-fast fighter planes that dominate the military today.

Space Shuttle AtlantisIn 1957, the Space Race between the United States and Russia began, which would ultimately lead to the landing of men on the moon in 1969, with American Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's successful Apollo 11 mission. In 1981 the Space Shuttle would make its first orbital flight, proving that life could be sustained inside a spacecraft, reenter the atmosphere under orbital speed, and land in a smiliar fashion to an airplane.

In 1986, the first manned aircraft would fly around the world without refueling or landing, and in 1999 the first hot air balloon would also fly around the globe.  As the 20th century wound to a close, development slowed, and more time began to be devoted to more economical, mor environmentally sound developments.  But though production hasn't changed much in the last forty years, the love of flight continues, and civilians are now able to fly more readily, in aircraft that they own, than they ever have been before.