The History of the Airplane

The History of the Airplane

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The human race has nurtured dreams of flying for thousands of years. Since the days of Ancient Greek mythology, the story of Icarus and his father (the master craftsman Daedalus) has remained a famous cautionary tale, with the duo attempting to fly to Crete using wings made of feathers and wax. However, Icarus falls to his doom after ignoring his father’s warning not to fly too close to the sun, as the wax melts.



Although the desire to fly is as old as mankind itself, in the early years people tried to fly by imitating the birds, strapping wings to their arms or using machines that became known as ornithopters – the concept involved wings being flapped up and down, based on the motion of birds’ wings.

Leonardo da Vinci famously designed an ornithopter in around 1485, drawing detailed plans. With an amazing wingspan of around 33 feet, a pine frame was covered in silk to produce a sturdy, yet lightweight body. However, it soon became apparent that what worked for birds didn’t work for man and da Vinci’s invention was no more successful than anyone else’s, as it wouldn’t lift off the ground.

In the late 18th century, a few daring individuals made flights in hot air balloons, but it wasn’t a practical way of flying and it largely relied on the wind blowing in the right direction. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the concept of today’s airplane, with fixed wings and a propulsion system, was born.


Birth of the airplane

The Yorkshire baronet Sir George Cayley is credited with having conceived the first flying machine with fixed wings (the fundamental concept of today’s airplane) in 1853. He built the first true airplane – a crude design resembling a kite, mounted on a stick with a moving tail. This proved the idea would work and thus launched the journey from the first glider into today’s amazing aircraft that can travel faster than sound itself.

American Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville (born in 1867 and 1871 respectively), built and flew the world’s first truly successful airplane. The aviators, engineers and inventors realised it was all well and good to design a small kite, but different altogether to build a large glider.

They studied aerodynamics in preparation for building a piloted glider, working out the required wing area and the curve needed to lift a pilot and also the most suitable materials. In 1900, the first glider wasn’t a huge success, but the brothers tried again in 1901, increasing the size and curve of the wings.

However, it wasn’t until 1902 that they designed a glider that performed markedly better than their earlier efforts. Finally, on 17th December 1903, the brothers made four flights at Kitty Hawk with the first successful powered airplane, paving the way for the invention that revolutionised travel.


Transformational airplanes

Aircraft have come a long way in the past century. Transforming from small and relatively flimsy structures that carried only one or two people, today’s massive passenger jets are capable of carrying hundreds of people at the same time.

Aviation experts agree that a handful of planes in the 20th century transformed the industry. The first of these is the Wright brothers’ Flyer of 1905, as it had twice the power of their earlier planes, upright seating for a pilot and passenger and independent three-axis control – it also flew twice as fast as its predecessors and had greater endurance.

Another milestone was the Blériot XI, designed by Louis Bleriot – remarkable for completing the first flight across the English Channel on 25th July 1909. The Model XI began the monoplane tradition of having the engine in front, with the ‘tail-dragger’ landing gear.


Airplane reinvented

Hugo Junkers reinvented the airplane in 1919 with his J-13, as he didn’t trust wooden construction and opted for metal instead. The plane was put into mass production, becoming known as the F-13. Its low wing, enclosed cabin and streamlined shape launched global air transport and by 1924, Junkers was supplying 40% of the world’s transport.

The Douglas DC-1 is said to be the first scientifically-designed American airplane. Created by Arthur E Raymond and his team in the 1930s, it carried 12 passengers. The twin-engine plane provided advanced aerodynamics, such as turbulence-reducing wing-fuselage fillets and high-strength aluminium alloys. In 1937, the Lockheed XC-35 became the first aircraft to have a pressurised cabin and successfully flight-tested up to 33,000 feet.

Developed by RAF Wing Commander Frank Whittle, the invention of the jet engine in the mid-20th century revolutionised the industry, taking its first flight in a research aircraft, the X28/39, on 15th May 1941. Another ground-breaking aircraft was the North American F-86 Sabre, which was America’s first swept-wing jet fighter, famous for winning dogfights against the MiG-15 during the Korean War.

In terms of passenger flights, the Boeing 367-80 became the world’s first medium to long-range jetliner in 1954. Other variations were developed over the years, but this remarkable design provided the basic configuration that transformed the passenger jet industry.


First World Wide Web

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has long recognised the importance of the invention of the airplane. In one of his most famous quotes, he says: “The Wright Brothers created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing. The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages, ideas and values together.”

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