“The sky’s the limit”, they say. On a windy December day, two brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, gave a whole new perspective to this phrase as they created history.
The concept of aviation had existed for centuries — in Greek mythology 2,000 years ago, when Icarus flew too close to the sun, or in Leonardo Da Vinci’s work ‘Codex on the Flight of Birds’ in the 16th Century.
However, inspiration struck the Wright brothers in the mid-1890s when they read about the dramatic glides by Otto Lilienthal in Germany, and how he died in an unfortunate plunge of his glider. Wilbur said, “Lilienthal was without question the greatest precursor, and the world owes him a great debt”.
The Wright brothers held in their possession all their findings of failed flight attempts, dangerous crashes, and contraptions that did not work in the past. But, what made them the markers of history was that they drew up a mechanism from all that they knew, and made their plans fly.
Wilbur and Orville Wright had faced a few setbacks before they took off the ground for the first time on the fateful day of December 17, 1903. It was awfully windy at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, but the brothers did not want to head home to Ohio before knowing whether their design would work. They flipped a coin to determine whose turn it was to fly and it was decided that Orville would make the attempt.
When Orville did fly the aeroplane, it was a historic moment, even though he stayed airborne for only 12 seconds. The brothers had once and for all set a record for “the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight”.
The Wright brothers continued their work on aircraft designs, and in 1905 they flew the Wright Flyer III which could go on for 39 minutes and 38 kilometres. In 1908, they carried mechanic Charles Furnas, who became the first aeroplane passenger in the history of aviation.
With their incredible inventions, the Wrights also inspired the many inventors who came after them to pursue their dreams to fly. What was once deemed impossible, was now made possible, and paved the way to more innovations in aviation that we witness today.
Another significant development in aviation history was by the French inventor, Louis Bleriot. The Bleriot VIII aeroplane had a single stick to control both roll and pitch, and a foot-operated pedal for the rudder. The same concept is used in aviation, even today.
Governments across the world began expediting aircraft design for military purposes after the outbreak of World War I. Larger aircraft with more speed and range were produced, and used the new propeller-based technology. Even the metal body of aircraft that we know of today was first seen in the Junkers JI aircraft in 1915.
An important milestone in the evolution of the aeroplane that normalised passenger air travel was the St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. This was a 20-minute flight across Tampa Bay in Florida and carried over 1,200 passengers in four months.
Soon after World War I, a prize of £10,000 was announced for anyone who could successfully fly “from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland and any point in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 continuous hours”. This prize was won by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten for the first successful transatlantic flight on a modified Vickers military aircraft.
The first attempt to fly around the world was made by 8 US military aviators in 4 aeroplanes to take off from Seattle, from East to West. Two of these aeroplanes successfully completed this trip through the South East Asia route by flying over 26,000 miles in 175 days.
The era witnessed unique kinds of aircraft being invented to suit commercial needs. The German plane, Dornier Do X, was the largest one of the time. It could carry up to 169 passengers and could even be converted for overnight sleeping accommodation. The aircraft had twelve engines and could go up to a range of 1,700 kilometres, which meant a tremendous potential for world travel. Unfortunately, only 3 of them were built due to the Great Depression in 1930.
Although most aircraft of this time were being built to make profits, the first one to achieve this goal was the Douglas DC-3. It had a capacity of just 32 passengers and had improved range, speed, and reliability. It offered transcontinental trips with only three stops. Over 16,000 models and variants of the DC-3 were produced to operate passenger services. The DC-3 lived long, and even in 2020, there were still 172 DC-3 aircraft in operation, not for passenger service but as cargo aircraft in remote locations.
Jet engines were in development since the 1930s; German Heinkel He 178 was the first operational aircraft in 1939 for military use. The first passenger jet, however, was the de Havilland Comet in 1952 which operated between London and Johannesburg. Sadly, the aircraft design was flawed and had major issues with its fuselage, windows, and pressurisation. These problems were fixed with the Comet 4, which led to an increase in sales.
Other aircraft designers learned from the Comet’s mistakes and had already begun offering competitive services. One such notable aircraft was the Boeing 707, which became the first highly successful jet aircraft of its age. The 707 even incorporated new design elements and customer feedback — it allowed a wider fuselage for five abreast seating and better cargo payload, the engines were moved to underwing pods which were considered safer in the event of a fire, and changes were made to flap design and the fuselage was strengthened. The 737 series that came next in 1967 offered several design modifications to stay ahead of competitors.
As aircraft design advanced, the need to develop planes that were both comfortable and economical for consumers grew. The Boeing 747 offered great passenger comfort, and hence had the best-selling widebody aircraft to date, with over 1,500 builds. The 747 changed the way people travelled, even from an economical standpoint. With the addition of a second deck, the plane could carry more passengers and offered a lesser fare per seat for longer routes. Soon, aeroplanes of this era were offering premium services with more space built for cabins.
The jet era gave way to new possibilities, and the peak of it all was the invention of supersonic flights that allowed the transport of passengers faster than the speed of sound. The first time the sound barrier was broken was in 1947 by the American experimental aircraft, Bell X-1, which was powered by a rocket-based engine using oxygen and ethyl alcohol. However, till today, only two civilian supersonic aircraft have been developed — the Russian Tupolev Tu 144 and the UK and French-built Concorde. The most popular flight was between London and New York by the Concorde, which only took around 3 hours and 15 minutes!
The past few decades have witnessed radical improvements in aircraft technology with a focus on passenger comfort and fuel efficiency. However, the most significant advancement was the fly-by-wire technology which replaced manual controls with electronics. The Airbus A320 was the first aircraft with full fly-by-wire controls. This feature improved the efficiency and safety of flights, and also helped save weight.
As two brothers soared the skies for the very first time, the future prospects of science and technology grew larger, and the world itself became smaller. This milestone by the Wright brothers gave way to more such iconic moments in history — when Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly transatlantic alone in 1932, or when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon in 1969. Across the century, aviation has evolved tremendously and so has our society. History has taught us time and again that the possibilities are endless. In the future, we may build aeroplanes that are environmentally friendly, or even find ways to reach the ends of the earth in the blink of an eye. Only time will tell, but one thing that we know for sure is that the sky is certainly not the limit.
Vandya is a copywriter by the day and an amateur illustrator by the night. She's a cat mom 24/7. As a certified organisation freak, she lives and breathes in Notion. With a head full of ideas, she is passionate about crafting interesting concepts - for work or play. To kick back at the end of the day, she likes binge-watching shows with an inclination for all things spooky.
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