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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Engineers hope so. “Sure, we’ve reached a certain level of maturity over the last part of the 20th century that some see as a plateau, the same as in the ’30s,” says the Smithsonian’s Anderson, a former chairman of the University of Maryland’s Aerospace Engineering Department. “I believe this is a platform from which we’ll jump off and see dramatic advances.” In addition to improvements in the efficiency and performance of existing aircraft, technological refinements may soon allow amazing accomplishments: fly-by-wire systems that keep a plane aloft with one wing shot off, the reduction or even elimination of sonic booms, and unmanned aircraft capable of dramatic maneuvers that would kill a pilot.

Curiously, some of the most advanced research going on right now bears a striking resemblance to innovations the Wrights made more than a century ago. At NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, engineers in the Active Aeroelastic Wing Program have equipped an F/A- 18 Hornet fighter plane with more flexible wings that test the possibilities of aeroelastic wing design—essentially a version of the Wrights’ wing-warping, albeit one that uses very advanced computer systems to induce wings to change shape at supersonic speeds. Aeroelastic wings make rolling, banking turns possible by twisting the wing itself, improving performance at supersonic speeds. “Very few birds fly with ailerons or leading edge flaps,” quips Dick Ewers, a NASA test pilot on the project. Instead, he says, birds change the shape of their wings, depending on how fast or slow they’re going and whether they’re turning, climbing, diving or soaring. “Airplanes spend a lot of weight and money making wings stiff,” he goes on.The aeroelastic wing will eventually do away with flaps and move the plane by changing the shape of the wing itself, he predicts: “Rather than stiffen the wing, we want to let it be flexible and take advantage of it.”

A Centennial of Flight logo on the prototype plane proudly heralds the project’s remarkable connection with tradition. Planes of the future may share an inspiration with the Wrights, who successfully guided their Flyer in three dimensions by shifting the shape of its wings. “One hundred years later, we may discover that the Wright brothers’ answers were more correct aerodynamically than what we’ve been living with for 80 years,” says Dave Voracek, the project’s chief engineer. “We’ve really come full circle.”

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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