The History of Aviation
From Dream to Reality
It’s been more than 100 years since the Wright Brothers took their aircraft, the Wright Flyer, to the sky for the first time in the history, but human being has always been dreaming of flight. Among the earliest recorded stories of man in flight is the legend of Emperor Shun. According to this legend, nearly 4,000 years ago, Emperor Shun escaped from prison by “donning the work clothes of a bird.” Around the Spring and Autumn Period, our ancestors invented the kite. Some kites were very large and may have carried man aloft. Troops used the man-carrying kites to watch their enemy’s activities. Around Tang Dynasty gunpowder was invented to build simple solid rockets. According to the record, a man named Wan Hoo attempted a flight to the Moon using a large wicker chair to which were fastened 47 large rockets. When the rockets were launched, Wan Hoo disappeared with a trail of smoke and fire- never to be seen again.
On the other side of the Earth, Leonardo da Vinci devoted many years of his life to understand the mysteries of flight. He believed that the secrets of flight could be learned by studying birds. With countless hours spent on researching, he left us approximately 160 pages of descriptions and sketches of flying machines, as well as his thinking about the center of gravity, center of pressure and streamlining.
On November 21, 1783, the first manned lighter-than-air flight is made by Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes in a hot-air balloon from the garden of the Chateau La Muette near Paris. The flight lasted 25 minutes and 5 miles. In the late 1890s, German engineer and inventor Otto Lilienthal designed his own hang-gliders. With over 2,000 successful flights, he proved to the western world that heavier-than-air flight is achievable.
Although, many people have built machines taking people up to the sky before, but the reason we considered the Wright Brothers is our funding father of modern aviation was because on December 17, 1903, they made the world’s first manned, powered, sustained, and controlled flight in history. Their achievement of success was not coming from best of luck, but their attitude of solving problems and devotion on scientific research. The first technological breakthrough they made was coming from observing birds’ activities. By doing so, they discovered birds can achieve lateral control during flight maneuvers by the movement of the feathers on the wingtips. They call it the “wing-warping technique”. By converting such technique to a design of airfoil, Wrights came up with their first testing gilder and found that the controls are operated well. After that, they went back to their workshop in Dayton, Ohio, to further improve the airfoil design and controllability of the aircraft. From 1901 to 1902, the Wright Brothers made over 200 different shaped airfoils out of sheet metals and set out to record the performance of each in a self-made wind tunnel. Meanwhile, they designed and built a lightweight gasoline engine as a suitable power plant for the aircraft. Next, they designed and carved the two wooden propellers that would be turned by the engine. With all that elements combined, the Wright Flyer became alive.
The Wright brothers’ success inspired an entire generation of aviation pioneers in Europe and in America. From 1903 to 1914, pioneers from both continents started to develop their aircraft and took it to the sky one step at a time. Among these pioneers, there was a Chinese man named Feng Ru. Feng immigrated to the U.S. from China when he was 12 years old. When the words about the Wright Brothers’ first flight were spread out, Fung was fascinated by their work. As a man always dreamed of flying, he wanted to build his own airplane just like the Wright Brothers did. He set up an aircraft factory with the help of a few Chinese investors in Amercia- in Oakland, California. With two years of hardworking, Fung constructed his first airplane in 1908, and made his first successful flight in the following year. He became the first Chinese man known to fly in America. In 1911, he decided to return to his native land with an ambition to help China catch up with aviation industry. Unfortunately, Feng was killed while performing an aerial exhibition before a crowd of 1,000 spectators shortly after his return.
Rise with The War
In 1914, the World War I began. At first, airplanes haven’t been recognized to play an important role on the battlefields. However, as the war leaded on, people started to realize airplane was one of those few weapon systems that can change warfare. At first, airplanes were used for observation. But it was not long before airplanes were used to shoot at each other and to bomb the targets. For the first time, aircraft were operated on a daily basis, with all that implies of regular servicing and a focus on reliability. Massive amount of money was loaded the industry for researching and ordering, more powerful engines and sturdier airframes brought a great steps forwards in overall performance. When the war started in 1914, the average airplane had a speed of 70 to 80 mph and could not go higher than about 10,000 feet. By the time World War I ended, the speed of aircraft had increased to 140 to 150 mph, and they could be operated up to about 24,000 feet. Other technical accomplishments like all-metal aircraft and two-way communication radio were also introduced during World War I.
The Golden Age
In the aftermath of the World War I, aircraft order from military was dramatically cut off by more than 85%, as well as majority of military pilots and workers from aircraft manufacturers were also been laid off. Aviators tried to find a civil market for this industry. The first step they took was to host air shows around places to attract public attention. But this was the time World War I has just ended, most people were still possessing post-war trauma and considered airplane as the killing machine. The industry must prove to the public aircraft is a reliable and useful tool that can be used on a daily basis. Therefore, in the next 20-year period between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, new speed and altitude records were set, broken and reset, over and over again. There were oceans and continents to cross, and each accomplishment led to someone who wanted to do it better and faster. The public thrilled to the excitement of air races and the feats of record-breakers. Such publication gradually built a good public reputation for the industry. Helped by pioneering long-distance survey flight, airlines began to stretch their networks both in land and across the ocean.
The very first passenger service of the postwar era was initiated by Deutsche Luft-Reederei from German, which was the predecessor of Lufthansa. With a few years of development, it was by far the world’s largest airline which hold over 40% of the world’s passenger air traffic in 1926. Meanwhile, commercial aviation started to rises with air mail service in United States. Many were opposed to the development of an air mail service, especially from railroads because of the conflict of interests. But the country was built on the right scale for air transport, as the continental expanse offering airplanes the chance to deliver major time-saving, the US Air Mail quickly opened the market. As air mail service spread out across the country, a few commercial passengers were carried by the mail planes. At the early days, airlines used converted warplanes on their scheduled flight. However, those airplanes were designed to carry bombs and bullets instead of mails and passengers. In order to achieve more profits, airplanes with wider fuselage and heavier payload, like Ford Tri-Motor or Douglas DC-3, were developed specifically for airline operation.
In the 1930s, two common solution for transoceanic flight were flying boats and airships. With the tragic accident of the Hindenburg, the ascendancy of flying boats made sense in the conditions of the time. On the other hand, although flying boats were not necessarily capable of alighting safely on the open sea, they were, understandably, considered safer for transoceanic flight than land-planes. One of the airlines built its empire with flying boats was the company called Pan American Airways. In 1927, Pan American Airways was formed to fly the first air mail route between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. This route was extended from island to island throughout the Caribbean. It was eventually extended into Central America and down the Atlantic coast of South America. Since most of this route was over water, and because seaplane bases were easier to build in remote areas than airports, Pan American Airways wanted a large advanced seaplane. In 1934, Pan American took delivery of a four-engine flying boat called the Martin 130. Pan American dubbed it the China Clipper. On November 22, 1935, the China Clipper took off from California for the first transpacific flight. After stops in Hawaii, Wake Island and Guam, the Clipper arrived in the Philippines. By 1937, this route was extended to Hong Kong and Pan American Airways was making one round-trip flight across the Pacific every 7 days.
The World War II did not only make our piston engine aircraft fly higher and faster; it also brought us another technological break through to the industry-the Jet. Until the 1940s, air travel was a growing but marginal alternative to travel by ship and train. However, the triumph of jet airliners in the following decade carried the transformation of travel patterns to a new level. By 1957, more people were crossing the Atlantic by plane than by boat. People made journeys they would never previously have, went to places they would never have visited.
The world’s first jet airliner, the DeHavilland Comet 1, entered service in May 1952. The Comet revolutionized commercial travel by increasing air speed to 500 mph. Also, it flew at a higher altitude (25,000-30,000 feet), which put it above most of the weather and made for a much smoother ride. In 1954, two Comets had fatal accidents caused by structural failure. Flying at extremely high altitudes, a pressurized aircraft has a tremendous amount of pressure on the inside. In the case of the Comet, the aircraft could not withstand the pressure difference and explosive decompression occurred. This caused the aircraft to disintegrate in flight. This was a serious setback to the British aviation industry. In United States, Pan American Airways also wanted a jet airliner which can cut the flying time to reach Europe in half and with the capability crossing the Pacific Ocean. They placed their order to both Boeing and Douglas. In October 1958, the Boeing 707 came into service flying the Pan American transatlantic routes from Idlewild, New York, to Paris and London. With the lessons learned from the Comet 1 disasters, the Boeing 707 shows a reliable capability in service.
With growing demands for air travel in the 1960s, the Pan American Airways believed the future of air travel was the Jumbo Jet. Therefore, they asked their long-term partner Boeing to build an airliner that would expand double that passenger capacity of any existing jet airliner. The answer was the Boeing 747, world’s first wide-body, double-deck commercial jet airliner, designed to carrying around 400 passengers with a range for more than 10,000 km. The widespread adoption of jet airliners brought downward pressure on seat prices. Air travel became an experience open to everyone. More people were traveling further than ever before, partly because it has become quicker, easier, and more pleasant to fly, but also because it was becoming cheaper.
Nowadays, the industry has seen increasing interests in fuel savings and passengers’ comfort. Air travel becomes casual on our daily life. But no matter where the future will take us, safety is one area in which there has been continued progress.