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The History of Flight
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Aviation history deals with the development of mechanical flight, from the earliest attempts in kite-powered and gliding flight, to the demonstration of sustained, controlled and powered heavier-than-air flight, and beyond.
Humanity's desire to fly possibly first found expression in China, where human flight tied to kites is recorded (as a punishment) from the sixth century AD. Subsequently, the first hang glider was demonstrated by Abbas Ibn Firnas in Andalusia in the 9th century AD. Leonardo da Vinci's (15th c.) dream of flight found expression in several designs, but he did not attempt to demonstrate flight. It was in post-industrial Europe from the late 18th century that serious attempts at flight took place, with progression from lighter-than-air (hot-air balloons, 1783), unpowered heavier-than-air (Otto Lilienthal, 1891), and finally, powered, sustained, flight (Wright Brothers, 1903).
Since then, Aircraft designers have struggled to make their craft go faster, further, fly higher, and be controlled more easily: List of important factors involved in inventing an airplane:
Control: Initially gliders were controlled by moving one's entire body (Otto Lilienthal) or warping the wings (Wright brothers). Modern airplanes are controlled with the help of control surfaces such as ailerons and elevators, and these are stabilized by a computerized system to the extent that it is not possible to fly certain military aircraft without these controllers.
- Power: Aircraft engines have become lighter and more efficient, from Clement Ader's steam engine to piston, jet and rocket engines.
- Material: Initially made of canvas and wood, aircraft materials moved to doped fabric and steel tubing, all aluminum monocoque construction (around WWII), and increasingly today, composites.
The dream of flight is fueled by our observation of the birds, and is illustrated in myths across the world (e.g. Daedalus and Icarus in Greek mythology, or the Pushpaka Vimana of the Ramayana). The first attempts to fly also often drew on the idea of imitating birds, as in Daedalus' building his wings out of feathers and wax. Attempts to build wings of various materials and jump off high towers continued well until the seventeenth century.
Hot Air Balloons and Kites in China: The Kongming lantern (proto hot air balloon) was known in China from ancient times. Its invention is usually attributed to the general Zhuge Liang (180-234 CE, honorific title Kongming), who is said to have used them to scare the enemy troops.
However, the device based on a lamp in a paper shell is documented earlier, and according to Joseph Needham, hot-air balloons in China were known from the 3rd century BC.
During the Yuan dynasty (13th c.) under rulers like Kublai Khan, the rectangular lamps became popular in festivals, when they would attract huge crowds. During the Mongol Empire, the design may have spread along the Silk Route into Central Asia and the Middle East. Almost identical floating lights with a rectangular lamp in thin paper scaffolding are common in Tibetan celebrations and in the Indian festival of lights, Diwali. However, there is no evidence that these were used for human flight.
In 559, human flight using a kite was documented during a succession wrangle in the Northern Wei kingdom, according to the Comprehensive Mirror for the Aid of Government. After the death of emperor Yuan Lang (513-532), his general Gao Huan took over as emperor. After Gao Huan's death, his son Gao Yang, had Yuan Huangtou, son of the erstwhile emperor, launched on a kite from a tower in the capital Ye. Yuan Huangtou floated across the city walls and survived the landing, but was soon executed. Possibly, the capacity of kites to carry humans, as remarked upon several centuries later by Marco Polo, was known even at this time.
Parachutes and Gliders in Umayyad Spain: Minaret of the Great Mosque at Córdoba. In 852, Ibn Firnas is said to have jumped off the top in a parachute-like apparatus, and survived with minor injuries.Islamic Spain during the Umayyad renaissance under the Caliphate of Cordoba witnessed several attempts at flight by the Arab polymath and inventor Abbas Ibn Firnas (his name is sometimes Latinized as "Armen Firman", leading to some confusion whether these two are different people), who was supported by the Emir Abd ar-Rahman II. In 852 he made a set of wings with cloth stiffened by wooden struts. With this umbrella-like apparatus, Ibn Firnas jumped off the minaret of the Grand Mosque in Cordoba - while he could not fly, his apparatus slowed his fall, and he escaped with minor injuries. His device is now considered to have been a prototype of the modern parachute.
Twenty-five years later, at the age of 65, Ibn Firnas came up with an improved design, which included the first flight control surfaces. He took this set of wings, considered to be the first hang glider, to a small hill called Jabal al-'arus, and apparently managed to fly for quite some time, by some accounts as long as ten minutes. This was the first attempt at controlled flight, as he was able to alter his altitude and change his direction in order to return to where he flew from. After successfully returning to his starting point, he eventually crashed to the ground, and said later that the landing could have been improved by providing a tail apparatus. His flight was apparently the inspiration for Eilmer of Malmesbury, more than a century later, who would fly for about 200 meters using a similar glider (circa 1010).
Renaissance Europe and the Ottoman Empire: Some five centuries after Ibn Firnas, Leonardo da Vinci came up with a hang glider design in which the inner parts of the wings are fixed, and some control surfaces are provided towards the tips (as in the gliding flight in birds). While his drawings exist and are deemed flightworthy in principle, he himself never flew in it. Based on his drawings, and using materials that would have been available to him, a prototype constructed in the late 20th century was shown to fly. However, his sketchy design was interpreted with modern knowledge of aerodynamic principles, and whether his actual ideas would have flown is not known. A model he built for a test flight in 1496 did not fly, and some other designs, such as the four-person screw-type helicopter have severe flaws.
In the 17th century, the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi reported that in 1630-1632, he saw the Ottoman Turkish polymath Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi using a winged aircraft to fly across the Bosporus. He jumped off the Galata Tower (55m high) in Istanbul, and allegedly flew a distance of about 3km, and landed on the other (Asian) side, uninjured. A glide of 3 km from a launching height of 55m would at best require a modern glider to have considerable skill and practice, though it is known Celebi had practiced considerably prior to his flight.
In 1633, Hezarfen's brother, Lagari Hasan Çelebi, launched himself in the air in a seven-winged rocket, which was composed of a large cage with a conical top filled with gunpowder. This was the first known example of a manned rocket and an artifically-powered aircraft. The flight was accomplished as a part of celebrations performed for the birth of Ottoman Emperor Murad IV's daughter. Evliya reported that Lagari had made a soft landing in the Bosporus by using the wings attached to his body as a parachute after the gunpowder was consumed, foreshadowing the sea-landing methods of astronauts with parachutes after their voyages from outer space. The flight was estimated to have lasted about twenty seconds and the maximum height reached around 300 metres. Lagari was rewarded by the sultan with a valuable military position in the Ottoman army.
In 1670 Francesco Lana de Terzi published work that suggested lighter than air flight would be possible by having copper foil spheres that contained a vacuum that would be lighter than the displaced air, lift an airship (rather literal from his drawing). While not being completely off the mark, he did fail to realize that the pressure of the surrounding air would smash the spheres.
Modern Flight - Lighter than air: Although many people think of human flight as beginning with the aircraft in the early 1900s, in fact people had already been flying for some 200 years.
The first generally recognized human flight took place in Paris in 1783. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes went 5 miles (8 km) in a hot air balloon invented by the Montgolfier brothers. The balloon was powered by a wood fire, and was not steerable: that is, it flew wherever the wind took it.
Ballooning became a major "rage" in Europe in the late 18th century, providing the first detailed understanding of the relationship between altitude and the atmosphere.
Work on developing a steerable (or dirigible) balloon (now called an airship) continued sporadically throughout the 1800s. The first powered, controlled, sustained lighter-than-air flight is generally believed to have taken place in 1852 when Henri Giffard flew 15 miles (24 km) in France, with a steam engine driven craft.
Another notable advance was made in 1884, when the first fully controllable free-flight was made in a French Army electric-powered airship, La France, by Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs. The 170 foot long , 66,000 cubic foot airship covered 8 km (5 miles) in 23 minutes with the aid of an 8-1/2 horsepower electric motor.
However, these aircraft were generally short-lived and extremely frail. Routine, controlled flights would not come to pass until the advent of the internal combustion engine.
Although airships were used in both World War I and II, and continue on a limited basis to this day, their development has been largely overshadowed by heavier-than-air craft.
Toward better understanding: The first published paper on aviation was "Sketch of a Machine for Flying in the Air" by Emanuel Swedenborg published in 1716. This flying machine consisted of a light frame covered with strong canvas and provided with two large oars or wings moving on a horizontal axis, arranged so that the upstroke met with no resistance while the downstroke provided lifting power. Swedenborg knew that the machine would not fly, but suggested it as a start and was confident that the problem would be solved. He said, "It seems easier to talk of such a machine than to put it into actuality, for it requires greater force and less weight than exists in a human body. The science of mechanics might perhaps suggest a means, namely, a strong spiral spring. If these advantages and requisites are observed, perhaps in time to come some one might know how better to utilize our sketch and cause some addition to be made so as to accomplish that which we can only suggest. Yet there are sufficient proofs and examples from nature that such flights can take place without danger, although when the first trials are made you may have to pay for the experience, and not mind an arm or leg." Swedenborg would prove prescient in his observation that powering the aircraft through the air was the crux of flying.
During the last years of the 18th century, Sir George Cayley started the first rigorous study of the physics of flight. In 1799 he exhibited a plan for a glider, which except for planform was completely modern in having a separate tail for control and having the pilot suspended below the center of gravity to provide stability, and flew it as a model in 1804. Over the next five decades Cayley worked on and off on the problem, during which he invented most of basic aerodynamics and introduced such terms as lift and drag. He used both internal and external combustion engines, fueled by gunpowder, but it was left to Alphonse Penaud to make powering models simple, with rubber power. Later Cayley turned his research to building a full-scale version of his design, first flying it unmanned in 1849, and in 1853 his coachman made a short flight at Brompton, near Scarborough in Yorkshire.
In 1848, John Stringfellow had a successful test flight of a steam-powered model, in Chard, Somerset, England. This was 'unmanned'
In 1866 a Polish peasant, sculptor and carpenter by the name of Jan Wnęk built and flew a controllable glider. Wnęk was illiterate and self-taught, and could only count on his knowledge about nature based on observation of birds' flight and on his own builder and carver skills. Jan Wnęk was firmly strapped to his glider by the chest and hips and controlled his glider by twisting the wing's trailing edge via strings attached to stirrups at his feet. Church records indicate that Jan Wnęk launched from a special ramp on top of the Odporyszów church tower; The tower stood 45 m high and was located on top of a 50 m hill, making a 95 m (311 ft) high launch above the valley below. Jan Wnęk made several public flights of substantial distances between 1866 - 1869, especially during religious festivals, carnivals and New Year celebrations. Wnęk left no known written records or drawings, thus having no impact on aviation progress. Recently, Professor Tadeusz Seweryn, director of the Kraków Museum of Ethnography, has unearthed church records with descriptions of Jan Wnęk's activities.
In 1856, Frenchman Jean-Marie Le Bris made the first flight higher than his point of departure, by having his glider "L'Albatros artificiel" pulled by a horse on a beach. He reportedly achieved a height of 100 meters, over a distance of 200 meters.
In 1874, Félix du Temple built the "Monoplane", a large plane made of aluminium in Brest, France, with a wingspan of 13 meters and a weight of only 80 kilograms (without the driver). Several trials were made with the plane, and it is generally recognized that it achieved lift off under its own power after a ski-jump run, glided for a short time and returned safely to the ground, making it the first successful powered flight in history, although the flight was only a short distance and a short time.
Another person who advanced the art of flying was Francis Herbert Wenham, who unsuccessfully attempted to build a series of unmanned gliders. During his work he found that the majority of the lift from a bird-like wing appeared to be generated at the front, and concluded that long, thin wings would be better than the bat-like ones suggested by many, because they would have more leading edge for their weight. Today this measure is known as aspect ratio. He presented a paper on his work to the newly formed Royal Aeronautical Society of Great Britain in 1866, and decided to prove it by building the world's first wind tunnel in 1871. Members of the Society used the tunnel and learned that cambered wings generated considerably more lift than expected by Cayley's Newtonian reasoning, with lift-to-drag ratios of about 5:1 at 15 degrees. This clearly demonstrated the ability to build practical heavier-than-air flying machines; what remained was the problem of powering them, and controlling the flight.
The 1880s became a period of intense study, characterized by the "gentleman scientists" who represented most research efforts until the 20th century. Starting in the 1880s advancements were made in construction that led to the first truly practical gliders. Three people in particular were active: Otto Lilienthal, Percy Pilcher and Octave Chanute. One of the first truly modern gliders appears to have been built by John J. Montgomery; it flew in a controlled manner outside of San Diego on August 28, 1883. It was not until many years later that his efforts became well known. Another delta hang-glider had been constructed by Wilhelm Kress as early as 1877 near Vienna.
Otto Lilienthal of Germany duplicated Wenham's work and greatly expanded on it in 1874, publishing all of his research in 1889. He also produced a series of ever-better gliders, and in 1891 was able to make flights of 25 meters or more routinely. He rigorously documented his work, including photographs, and for this reason is one of the best known of the early pioneers. He also promoted the idea of "jumping before you fly", suggesting that researchers should start with gliders and work their way up, instead of simply designing a powered machine on paper and hoping it would work. His type of aircraft is now known as a hang glider.
Lilienthal knew that once an engine was attached to the plane it would be nearly impossible to further study the laws of aviation. The finding and describing of many of those laws were his greatest heritage to his successors, as they were able to construct their planes accordingly and thereby save themselves years of trial and error.
By the time of his death in 1896 he had made 2500 flights on a number of designs, when a gust of wind broke the wing of his latest design, causing him to fall from a height of roughly 56 ft (17 m), fracturing his spine. He died the next day, with his last words being "sacrifices must be made". Lilienthal had been working on small engines suitable for powering his designs at the time of his death.
Picking up where Lilienthal left off, Octave Chanute took up aircraft design after an early retirement, and funded the development of several gliders. In the summer of 1896 his troop flew several of their designs many times at Miller Beach, Indiana, eventually deciding that the best was a biplane design that looks surprisingly modern. Like Lilienthal, he heavily documented his work while photographing it, and was busy corresponding with like-minded hobbyists around the world. Chanute was particularly interested in solving the problem of natural stability of the aircraft in flight, one which birds corrected for by instinct, but one that humans would have to do manually. The most disconcerting problem was longitudinal stability, because as the angle of attack of a wing increased, the center of pressure moved forward and made the angle increase more. Without immediate correction, the craft would pitch up and stall.
Patent drawings of Clément Ader's Eole, which accomplished the first self-propelled flight in history.
Clément Ader 'Avion III (1897 photograph).Throughout this period, a number of attempts were made to produce a true powered aircraft. However the majority of these efforts were doomed to failure, being designed by hobbyists who did not have a full understanding of the problems being discussed by Lilienthal and Chanute.
In France Clément Ader successfully launched his steam powered Eole for a short 50 meter flight near Paris in 1890, making it the first self-propelled "long distance" flight in history. After this test he immediately turned to a larger design, which took five years to build. However, this design, the Avion III, was too heavy and was barely able to leave the ground. The plane reportedly managed to fly a distance of 300 meters, at a small height.
In 1884, Alexander Mozhaysky's monoplane design made what is now considered to be a power assisted take off or 'hop' of 60-100 feet (20-30 meters) near Krasnoye Selo, Russia.
Sir Hiram Maxim studied a series of designs in England, eventually building a monstrous 7,000 lb (3,175 kg) design with a wingspan of 105 feet (32 m), powered by two advanced low-weight steam engines which delivered 180 hp (134 kW) each. Maxim built it to study the basic problems of construction and power and it remained without controls, and, realizing that it would be unsafe to fly, he instead had a 1,800 foot (550 m) track constructed for test runs. After a number of test runs working out problems, on July 31, 1894 they started a series of runs at increasing power settings. The first two were successful, with the craft "flying" on the rails. In the afternoon the crew of three fired the boilers to full power, and after reaching over 42 mph (68 km/h) about 600 ft (180 m) down the track the machine produced so much lift it pulled itself free of the track and crashed after flying at low altitudes for about 200 feet (60 m). Declining fortunes left him unable to continue his work until the 1900s, when he was able to test a number of smaller designs powered by gasoline.
Another less successful early experimenter was Samuel Pierpont Langley. After a distinguished career in astronomy and a tenure at the Smithsonian Institution, Langley started a serious investigation into aerodynamics at what is today the University of Pittsburgh. In 1891 he published Experiments in Aerodynamics detailing his research, and then turned to building his designs. On May 6, 1896, Langley's Aerodrome No.5 made the first successful flight of an unpiloted, engine-driven heavier-than-air craft of substantial size. It was launched from a spring-actuated catapult mounted on top of a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia. Two flights were made that afternoon, one of 1,005 m (3,300 ft) and a second of 700 m (2,300 ft), at a speed of approximately 25 miles per hour.
On November 28, 1896, another successful flight was made with the Aerodrome No.6. This flight was witnessed and photographed by Alexander Graham Bell. It was flown a distance of approximately 1,460 m (4,790 ft).
In the United Kingdom an attempt at heavier-than-air flight was made by the aviation pioneer Percy Pilcher. Pilcher had built several working gliders, The Bat, The Beetle, The Gull and The Hawk, which he flew successfully during the mid to late 1890s. In 1899 he constructed a prototype powered aircraft which, recent research has shown, would have been capable of flight. However, he died in a glider accident before he was able to test it, and his plans were forgotten for many years.
The Pioneer Era (1900 - 1914): The first aircraft to make routine controlled flights were non-rigid airships (later called "blimps".) The most successful early pioneer of this type of aircraft was the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont effectively combined a balloon with an internal combustion engine. On October 19, 1901 he became world famous when he flew his airship "Number 6" over Paris from the Parc Saint Cloud around the Eiffel Tower and back in under thirty minutes to win the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize. After this triumph in airships, Santos-Dumont would go on to design and build several aircraft. The subsequent controversy surrounding his and others' competing claims with regard to aircraft would come to overshadow and obscure his unparalleled contributions to the development of airships.
At the same time that non-rigid airships were starting to have some success, rigid airships were also becoming more advanced. Indeed, rigid body dirigibles would be far more capable than fixed wing aircraft in terms of pure cargo carrying capacity for decades. Dirigible design and advancement was brought about by the German count, Ferdinand von Zeppelin.
Construction of the first Zeppelin airship began in 1899 in a floating assembly hall on Lake Constance in the Bay of Manzell, Friedrichshafen. This was intended to ease the starting procedure, as the hall could easily be aligned with the wind. The prototype airship LZ 1 (LZ for "Luftschiff Zeppelin") had a length of 128 m, was driven by two 14.2 ps (10.6 kW) Daimler engines and balanced by moving a weight between its two nacelles.
The first Zeppelin flight occurred on July 2, 1900. It lasted for only 18 minutes, as LZ 1 was forced to land on the lake after the winding mechanism for the balancing weight had broken. Upon repair, the technology proved its potential in subsequent flights, beating the 6 m/s velocity record of French airship La France by 3 m/s, but could not yet convince possible investors. It would be several years before the Count was able to raise enough funds for another try.
Samuel Pierpont Langley: On May 6, 1896, Langley's Aerodrome No.5 made the first successful flight of an unpiloted, engine-driven heavier-than-air craft of substantial size. It was launched from a spring-actuated catapult mounted on top of a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia. Two flights were made that afternoon, one of 1,005 m (3,300 ft) and a second of 700 m (2,300 ft), at a speed of approximately 25 miles per hour. On both occasions, the Aerodrome No.5 landed in the water, as planned, because, in order to save weight, it was not equipped with landing gear.
On November 28, 1896, another successful flight was made with the Aerodrome No.6. This flight was witnessed and photographed by Alexander Graham Bell. It was flown a distance of approximately 1,460 m (4,790 ft). The Aerodrome No.6 was actually Aerodrome No.4 greatly modified. So little remained of the original aircraft that it was given the new designation of Aerodrome No.6.
With the success of the Aerodrome No. 5 and its follow-on No. 6, Langley started looking for funding to build a full-scale man-carrying version of his designs. Spurred by the Spanish-American War, the U.S. government granted him $50,000 to develop a man-carrying flying machine for surveillance. Langley planned on building a scaled-up version known as the Aerodrome A, and started with the smaller Quarter-scale Aerodrome, which flew twice on June 18, 1901, and then again with a newer and more powerful engine in 1903.
With the basic design apparently successfully tested, he then turned to the problem of a suitable engine. He contracted Stephen Balzer to build him one, but was disappointed when it delivered only 8 horsepower (6 kW) instead of 12 hp (9 kW) as he expected. Langley's assistant, Charles M. Manly, then reworked the design into a five-cylinder water-cooled radial that delivered 52 horsepower (39 kW) at 950 rpm, a feat that took years to duplicate. Now with both power and a design, Langley put the two together with great hopes.
To his dismay, the resulting aircraft proved to be too fragile. He had apparently overlooked the effects of minimum gauge, and simply scaling up the original small models resulted in a design that was too heavy to hold itself up. Two launches in late 1903 both ended with the Aerodrome crashing into the water almost immediately after launch.
His attempts to gain further funding failed, and his efforts ended -- only weeks later the Wright brothers successfully flew their aptly-named Flyer.
(Glenn Curtiss made several modifications to the Aerodrome and successfully flew it in 1914 -- the Smithsonian Institution thus continued to boast that Langley's Aerodrome was the first machine "capable of flight".)
Gustave Whitehead: On August 14, 1901, in Fairfield, Connecticut. Whitehead reportedly flew his engine-powered Number 21 800 meters at 15 meters height, according to articles in the Bridgeport Herald, the New York Herald and the Boston Transcript. No photographs were taken, but a sketch of the plane in the air was made by a reporter for the Bridgeport Herald, Dick Howell, who was present in addition to Whitehead helpers and other witnesses. This date precedes the Wright brothers' Kitty Hawk, North Carolina flight by more than two years. Several witnesses have sworn and signed affidavits about many other flights during the summer 1901 before the event described above which was publicized.
For example: "In the summer of 1901 he flew that machine from Howard Avenue East to Wordin Avenue, flying it along the border of a property belonging to a gasworks. As Harworth recalls, after landing the flying machine was merely turned around and a further "leap" was taken back to Howard Avenue." (According to old and modern maps this distance is 200m (600ft).)
1897: The Aeronautical Club of Boston and manufacturer Horsman in New York hired Whitehead as a specialist for hanggliders, aircraft models, kites and motors for flying craft. Whitehead flew short distances in his glider.
1899: According to witness reports, Whitehead had flown about 1 km (half a mile) in Pittsburgh as early as 1899. This flight ended in a crash when Whitehead tried to avoid a collision with a three-storey building by flying over the house and failed. After this crash Whitehead was forbidden any further flying experiments in Pittsburgh. That's why he moved to Bridgeport.
1902: In January 1902, he claimed to have flown 10 km (7 miles) over Long Island Sound in the improved Number 22.
The Wright Brothers: Following Lilienthal's principles of jumping before flying, the brothers built and tested a series of kite and glider designs from 1900 to 1902 before attempting to build a powered design. The gliders worked, but not as well as the Wrights had expected based on the experiments and writings of their 19th century predecessors. Their first glider, launched in 1900, had only about half the lift they anticipated. Their second glider, built the following year, performed even more poorly. Rather than giving up, the Wrights constructed their own wind tunnel and created a number of sophisticated devices to measure lift and drag on the 200 wing designs they tested. As a result, the Wrights corrected earlier mistakes in calculations regarding drag and lift, though they missed the effect of Reynolds number (known since 1883), which would have given them an even bigger advantage. Their testing and calculating produced a third glider design, which they flew in 1902. It performed far better than the previous models. In the end, by establishing their rigorous system of designing, wind-tunnel testing of models and flight testing of full-size prototypes, the Wrights not only built a working aircraft but also helped advance the modern science of aeronautical engineering.
The Wrights appear to be the first design team to make serious studied attempts to simultaneously solve the power and control problems. Both problems proved difficult, but they never lost interest. Eventually, they designed and built an engine that could provide the needed power, and solved the control problem through a system known as "wing warping". Although this method was used only briefly during the history of aviation, it worked at the low airspeeds their designs would fly at, and proved to be a key advance, leading directly to modern ailerons. While many aviation pioneers appeared to leave safety largely to chance, the Wrights' design was greatly influenced by the need to teach themselves to fly without unreasonable risk to life and limb, by surviving crashes. This, not lack of power, was the reason for the low speed and for taking off in a head wind. It was also the reason for the rear-heavy design, for the canard, and for the anhedral wings.
According to the Smithsonian and FAI the Wrights made the first sustained, controlled and powered heavier-than-air flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, a town five miles down the road from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903
The first flight by Orville Wright, of 121 feet (37 m) in 12 seconds, was recorded in a famous photograph. In the fourth flight of the same day, Wilbur Wright flew 852 feet (260 m) in 59 seconds. The flights were witnessed by 4 lifesavers and a boy from the village, making them the first public flights and certainly the first well-documented ones.
Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o'clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet (260 m); the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight again in about a day or two. "Every flight of the aircraft on December 14 and 17 -- under very difficult conditions on the 17th -- ended in a bumpy and unintended "landing"."
"When rebuilding the Flyer III after a severe crash on 14 July 1905, the Wrights made radical changes to the design. They almost doubled the size of the elevator and rudder and moved them about twice the distance from the wings. They added two fixed vertical vanes (called "blinkers") between the elevators, and gave the wings a very slight dihedral. They disconnected the rudder of the rebuilt Flyer III from the wing-warping control, and as in all future aircraft, placed it on a separate control handle. When testing of Flyer III resumed in September the results were almost immediate. The bucking and veering that had hampered Flyers I & II were gone. The minor crashes the Wrights had experienced disappeared. The flights with the redesigned Flyer III started lasting over 20 minutes. Thus Flyer III became a practicable, as well as dependable aircraft, flying solidly for a consistent duration and bringing its pilot back to the starting point safely and landing without damage to itself. On 5 October 1905, Wilbur flew 24 miles (38.9 km) in 39 minutes 23 seconds."
Helicopter: In 1877 Enrico Forlanini developed an early unmanned helicopter powered by a steam engine. It was the first of its type that rose to a height of 13 meters, where it remained for some 20 seconds, after a vertical take-off from a park in Milan. Paul Cornu's helicopter, built in 1907, was the first flying machine to have risen from the ground using rotor blades instead of wings.The first manned helicopter known to have risen off the ground took place in 1907 (Cornu, France) though the first practical helicopter was the Focke FA-61 (Germany, 1936).
The first seaplane was invented in March 1910 by the French engineer Henri Fabre. Its name was Le Canard ('the duck'), and took off from the water and flew 800 meters on its first flight on March 28, 1910. These experiments were closely followed by the aircraft pioneers Gabriel and Charles Voisin, who purchased several of the Fabre floats and fitted them to their Canard Voisin airplane. In October 1910, the Canard Voisin became the first seaplane to fly over the river Seine, and in March 1912, the first seaplane to be used militarily from a seaplane carrier, La Foudre ('the lightning').
World War I (1914 - 1918): Almost as soon as they were invented, planes were drafted for military service. The first country to use planes for military purposes was Bulgaria, whose planes attacked and reconnoitred the Ottoman positions during the First Balkan War 1912-13. The first war to see major use of planes in offensive, defensive and reconnaissance capabilities was World War I. The Allies and Central Powers both used planes extensively. The most famous plane of the war is the Sopwith Camel; it was credited with more aerial victories than any other Allied plane, but was also notorious for its awkward handling resulting in the death of many pilots.
While the concept of using the aeroplane as a weapon of war was generally laughed at before World War I, the idea of using it for photography was one that was not lost on any of the major forces. All of the major forces in Europe had light aircraft, typically derived from pre-war sporting designs, attached to their reconnaissance departments. While early efforts were hampered by the light loads carried, improved two-seat designs soon appeared that were entirely practical.
It was not long before aircraft were shooting at each other, but the lack of any sort of steady point for the gun was a problem. The French solved this problem when, in late 1914, Roland Garros attached a fixed machine gun to the front of his plane, but it was Adolphe Pegoud who would become known as the first "ace", getting credit for five victories, before also becoming the first ace to die in action.
Aviators were styled as modern day knights, doing individual combat with their enemies. Several pilots became famous for their air to air combats, the most well-known is Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, who shot down 80 planes in air to air combat with several different planes, the most celebrated of which was the Fokker Dr.I. On the allied side, René Paul Fonck is credited with the most victories at 75. For the Americans, the most successful ace was Eddie Rickenbacker with 26 victories.
The Golden Age (1918 - 1939): The years between World War I and World War II saw a large advancement in aircraft technology.
Aircraft evolved from being constructed of mostly wood and canvas to being constructed almost entirely of aluminium. Engine development proceeded apace, with engines moving from in-line water cooled gasoline engines to rotary and radial air cooled engines, with a commensurate increase in propulsive power. Pushing all of this forward were prizes for distance and speed records. For example Charles Lindbergh took the Orteig Prize of $25,000 for his solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic, the first person to achieve this, although not the first to carry out a non-stop crossing. That was achieved eight years earlier when Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Brown co-piloted a Vickers Vimy nonstop from St. John's, Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland on June 14, 1919, winning the £10,000 ($50,000) Northcliffe prize.
After WWI experienced fighter pilots were eager to show off their new skills. Many American pilots became barnstormers, flying into small towns across the country and showing off their flying abilities, as well as taking paying passengers for rides. Eventually the barnstormers grouped into more organized displays. Air shows sprang up around the country, with air races, acrobatic stunts, and feats of air superiority. The air races drove engine and airframe development - the Schneider Trophy for example led to a series of ever faster and sleeker monoplane designs culminating in the Supermarine S.6B, a direct forerunner of the Spitfire. With pilots competing for cash prizes, there was an incentive to go faster. Amelia Earhart was perhaps the most famous of those on the barnstorming/air show circuit. She was also the first female pilot to achieve records such as crossing of the Atlantic and English channels.
The first lighter-than-air crossings of the Atlantic were made by airship in July 1919 by His Majesty's Airship R34 and crew when they flew from East Lothian, Scotland to Long Island, New York and then back to Pulham, England. By 1929, airship technology had advanced to the point that the first round-the-world flight was completed by the Graf Zeppelin in September and in October, the same aircraft inaugurated the first commercial transatlantic service. However the age of the dirigible ended in 1937 with the terrible fire aboard the Zeppelin Hindenburg. After the now famous footage of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg burning and crashing on the Lakehurst, New Jersey, landing field, people stopped using airships, despite the fact that most people on board survived. The Hindenburg, combined with the Winged Foot Express disaster that occurred on 21 July, 1919, in Chicago, Illinois, in which 12 civilians died, started the demise of the airship. Flammable gas dirigibles did not burn and crash often, but when they did crash they caused a disproportionate amount of destruction to the crash zone compared with the aeroplanes of the time. It was more shock value than the number of fatalities that caused the retirement of the world's airships. This may not have been the case had helium been available to the Zeppelin company. The United States, holder of the world's only reserves of helium at the time, was loathe to supply it to the company, which was based in Germany.
In 1929 Jimmy Doolittle developed instrument flight.
World War II (1939 - 1945): World War II saw a drastic increase in the pace of aircraft development and production. All countries involved in the war stepped up development and production of aircraft and flight based weapon delivery systems, such as the first long range bomber. Fighters were critical to the success of the heavy bombers, allowing much lower losses than would have been the case without fighter protection.
World War II saw a number of technological advances that were remarkable for its day: The first functional jetplane was the Heinkel He 178 (Germany), flown by Erich Warsitz in 1939 (a Coanda-1910 is said to have done a short involuntary flight on 16 December 1910). The first cruise missile (V-1), the first ballistic missile (V-2), and the first manned rocket Bachem Ba 349 were also developed by Germany. However, the small number of Jet fighters did not have significant impact, the V-1 was not very effective as it was slow and vulnerable, and the V-2 could not hit targets precisely enough.
The Cold War (1945 - 1991):Commercial Aviation took hold after World War II using mostly ex-military aircraft in the business of transporting people and goods. Within a few years many companies existed, with routes that criss-crossed North America, Europe and other parts of the world. This was accelerated due to the glut of heavy and super-heavy bomber airframes like the B-29 and Lancaster that could easily be converted into commercial aircraft. The DC-3 also made for easier and longer commercial flights. The first North American commercial jet airliner to fly was the Avro C102 Jetliner in September 1949, shortly after the British Comet. By 1952, the British state airline BOAC had introduced the De Havilland Comet into scheduled service. While a technical achievement, the plane suffered a series of highly public failures, as the shape of the windows led to cracks due to metal fatigue. The fatigue was caused by cycles of pressurization and depressurization of the cabin, and eventually led to catastrophic failure of the plane's fuselage. By the time the problems were overcome, other jet airliner designs had already taken to the skies. USSR's Aeroflot became the first airline in the world to operate sustained regular jet services on 15 September 1956 with the Tupolev Tu-104. Boeing 707, which established new levels of comfort, safety and passenger expectations, ushered in the age of mass commercial air travel as we enjoy it today.
Even with the end of World War II, there was still a need for advancement in aircraft and rocket technology. Not long after the war ended, in October of 1947, Chuck Yeager took the rocket powered Bell X-1 past the speed of sound. Although anecdotal evidence exists that some fighter pilots may have done so while divebombing ground targets during the war, this is the first controlled, level flight to cross the sound barrier. Further barriers of distance were eliminated in 1948 and 1952 as the first jet crossing of the Atlantic occurred and the first nonstop flight to Australia occurred.
During the 1950s, a new age of military aviation history would be written. When the Soviet Union developed long-range bombers that could deliver nuclear weapons to North America and Europe, Western countries responded with interceptor aircraft that could engage and destroy the bombers before they reached their destination. The "minister-of-everything" C.D. Howe in the Canadian government, was the key proponent of the Avro Arrow, designed as a high-speed interceptor, reputedly the fastest aircraft in its time. However, by 1955, most Western countries agreed that the interceptor age was replaced by guided missile age. Consequently, the Avro Arrow project was eventually cancelled in 1959 under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. See Avro Arrow for more details.
In 1961, the sky was no longer the limit for manned flight, as Yuri Gagarin orbited once around the planet within 108 minutes. This action further heated up the space race that had started in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union. The United States responded by launching Alan Shepard into space on a suborbital flight in a Mercury space capsule. With the launch of the Alouette I in 1963, Canada became the third country to send a satellite in space. The Space race between the United States and the Soviet Union would ultimately lead to the current pinnacle of human flight, the landing of men on the moon in 1969.
This historic achievement in space was not the only progress made in aviation at this time however. In 1967, the X-15 set the air speed record for an aircraft at 4,534 mph or Mach 6.1 (7,297 km/h). Aside from vehicles designed to fly in outer space, this record still stands as the air speed record for powered flight.
Apollo 11 lifts off on its mission to land a man on the moonThe same year that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, 1969, Boeing came out with its vision for the future of air travel, unveiling the Boeing 747 for the first time. This plane is still one of the largest aircraft ever to fly, and it carries millions of passengers each year. Commercial aviation progressed even further in 1975, as Soviet Aeroflot started regular service on Tu-144 — the first supersonic passenger plane, and in 1976, as British Airways inaugurated supersonic service across the Atlantic, courtesy of the Concorde. A few years earlier the SR-71 Blackbird had set the record for crossing the Atlantic in under 2 hours, and Concorde followed in its footsteps with passengers in tow.
The last quarter of the 20th century saw a slowing of the pace of advancement seen in the first three quarters of the century. No longer was revolutionary progress made in flight speeds, distances and technology. This part of the century saw the steady improvement of flight avionics, and a few minor milestones in flight progress.
For example, in 1979 the Gossamer Albatross became the first human powered aircraft to cross the English channel. This achievement finally saw the realization of centuries of dreams of human flight, but this has not had any significant impact on either commercial or military aviation. In 1986 Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager flew an aircraft around the world unrefuelled, and without landing. In 1999 Bertrand Piccard became the first person to circle the earth in a balloon. By the end of the 20th Century there were no major or minor accomplishments left to be made in subsonic aviation. Focus was turning to the ultimate conquest of space and flight at faster than the speed of sound. The ANSARI X PRIZE inspired entrepreneurs and space enthusiasts to build their own rocket ships to fly faster than sound and climb into the lowest reaches of space.
2001- Future: In the beginning of the 21st century, subsonic aviation focused on eliminating the pilot in favor of remotely operated or completely autonomous vehicles. Several Unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs have been developed. In April 2001 the unmanned aircraft Global Hawk flew from Edwards AFB in the US to Australia non-stop and unrefuelled. This is the longest point-to-point flight ever undertaken by an unmanned aircraft, and took 23 hours and 23 minutes. In October 2003 the first totally autonomous flight across the Atlantic by a computer-controlled model aircraft occurred.
In commercial aviation, the early 21st century saw the end of an era with the retirement of Concorde. Supersonic flight was not very commercially viable, as the planes were required to fly over the oceans if they wanted to break the sound barrier. Concorde also was fuel hungry and could carry a limited amount of passengers due to its highly streamlined design. Nevertherless, it seems to have made a significant operating profit for British Airways.
Despite this setback, and the general slowing of progress, it is generally agreed that the 21st century will be a bright one for aviation. Planes and rockets offer unique capabilities in terms of speed and carrying capacity that should not be underestimated. As long as there is a need for people to get to places quickly, there will be a need for aviation.
The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission was established in 1999 to encourage the broadest national and international participation in the celebration of 100 years of powered flight. It publicized and encouraged a number of programs, projects and events intended to educate people about the history of aviation.
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