A Century of Flight - Taking Wing

From the Wright brothers' breakthrough 100 years ago this month to the latest robot jets, the past century has been shaped by the men and women who got us off the ground

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At first, the airplane’s potential beggared the imaginations of the most progressive scientists. Too expensive for anyone but rich daredevils and too dangerous for regular commercial use, the Wrights’ machine was laughed off as frivolous; even the brothers thought that only national governments would have the resources to build and fly airplanes. “It is doubtful if aeroplanes will ever cross the ocean,” the eminent Harvard astronomer William Pickering scoffed in 1908, according to Hallion’s history. “The public has greatly overestimated the possibilities of the aeroplane, imagining that in another generation they will be able to fly over to London in a day. This is manifestly impossible.”

Such disdain chilled U.S. investment in aviation. Between 1908 and 1913, the U.S. government spent only $435,000 on aviation—less than Germany, France, Chile and even Bulgaria. European inventors and entrepreneurs were soon building better, faster and more stable planes than were the Wrights. “The Wright airplane was superseded by European designs as early as 1910,” says Jakab. German, Russian and especially French aviators and inventors soon dominated the skies, as our vocabulary attests; “aviation,” “aileron,” “fuselage” and “helicopter” all have French origins.

For all the Wrights’ achievements, their aircraft were still iffy. Half-a-dozen pilots were killed flying Wright flyers in a one-year period starting in 1909; other early planes were also dangerous. “Europeans weren’t learning from the Wright experience how to fly, they were learning how to fly better,” Hallion writes. Designers like Louis Blériot moved the Wrights’ “pusher” propellers to the front of the plane, which simplified the design (a rear-mounted propeller requires more elaborate structures for the rudders and elevators). The original biplane configuration—which was strong, light and generated a lot of lift—dominated airplane design until the early 1930s, when monoplanes, which are faster, took over.

At the start of World War I, the airplane had come into its own as a military and commercial technology. The opencockpit, largely wood-and-fabric airplanes jousting in Europe’s skies—planes like the British Sopwith Camel and the German Albatros—were faster and far more nimble than the Wright Flyer, but still dangerous. Heroes like Manfred von Richthofen (the “Red Baron”) and America’s Eddie Rickenbacker created the mystique of the fighter ace, but thousands of others perished in the air. In 1917, the life expectancy of a British fighter pilot in a combat zone, Hallion writes, was three weeks.

But the war speeded up development of the fledgling aviation industry. The first passenger flight had been in 1908, when Wilbur Wright carried one Charles Furnas during tests of the Wright Flyer. Scheduled passenger flights did not begin in earnest until January 1, 1914, when Tony Jannus, an entrepreneurial Florida pilot, started flying $5 hops across TampaBay. Planes flying at low speeds and low altitudes were buffeted by winds, causing a bumpy—and often sickening—ride. Poorly ventilated cabins filled with engine exhaust and gas fumes. And bad weather kept planes on the ground, making air travel unreliable. Yet public demand accelerated.

In the 1920s and ’30s, investment by industry and government fueled innovation. Wood frames and cloth skins gave way to allmetal designs, which in turn made possible larger, stronger craft, streamlining, sealed cabins and high-altitude flight. Also important were reliable flight instruments such as the artificial horizon, altimeter and directional gyroscope, crucial to flying in poor weather (and keeping airlines on schedule). By 1932, U.S. airlines were flying more than 475,000 passengers a year.

In 1935, aviation reached a new peak—and, oddly perhaps, something of a plateau—with the development of the Douglas Aircraft Company’s DC-3. With 21 seats, all-metal construction, a streamlined design, retractable landing gear, automatic pilot and a cruising speed of almost 200 miles per hour, the DC-3 is considered by many experts the pinnacle of the propeller-driven plane, and set the pattern for planes we know today.

As new engine designs drove propellers faster and faster—at their tips, they broke the sound barrier—engineers came up against baffling aerodynamic properties. Shock waves and unpredicted turbulence undermined performance. Propellers lost efficiency and thrust when they neared supersonic speeds.

The man who overcame that limit was not a professional engineer. Frank Whittle, a machinist’s son and Royal Air Force pilot, came up with the idea for a jet engine while serving as a flight instructor in the early 1930s. “Whittle was an odd duck pushing an idea everyone thought was kind of nuts,” says historian Roger Bilstein, author of Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. “Nobody thought it would work.”

Whittle persisted, eventually scraping together the resources to design a workable jet engine on his own. The concept, at any rate, is simple: air coming in at the front of the engine is compressed and combined with fuel, then ignited; the burning mixture roars out the back of the jet, generating tremendous thrust while passing through turbines that power the compressors in the front of the engine.

About Andrew Curry
Andrew Curry

Andrew Curry is a Berlin-based journalist who writes about science and history for a variety of publications, including National Geographic, Nature, and Wired. He is a contributing editor at Archaeology and has visited archaeological excavations on five continents. (Photo Credit: Jennifer Porto)

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