The Aviation Centenary (1903-2003)

The time is 10:35 at Kitty Hawk North Carolina and the Date December 17th 1903; Orville Wright is about to make history. His 12-second flight in Flyer 1-the first ever powered aircraft driven by a pilot-covered 35.6m a small flight for man but a giant stride on the road of progress.

From this small hop came the aviation industry that we have today spanning from high speed, high tech fighters, through giant double-decker airliners, all the way down to humble propeller driven kit-planes. This essay will explain how aviation has changed the face of travel over the last 100 years.

The Beginning (1903-14)

In the years before the First World War aircraft merely consisted of a noisy primitive piston engine surrounded by a wire and wood airframe. Examples of this kind of aircraft are the Boxkite, which was identical to the Wright Flyer 1 except it had wheels instead of skids for landing on, and also the Bleriot Monoplane, first to cross the English Channel in 1909.

Although these aircraft were underpowered and very clamorous, the powerplants used were the only options available and at the time of their use they were considered to be state of the art.

The brave men who flew these machines were the first to experience their spirit soar above the earth.

World War 1 (1914-18)

World war one was the first major milestone for aviation; it gave aircraft the chance to be used militarily.

At the beginning of the war the aircraft were used for reconnaissance purposes only, before machine guns were mounted. The first proper “fighters” had problems due to the position of the propeller and many pilots shot themselves down because of this. This problem was solved when metal plates were put onto the propellers. Consequently a new problem arose because plate bounced the bullet back in the direction of the pilot towards the pilot. A man called Anthony Fokker solved this problem by developing the interrupter gear, which made sure that the gun only fired when the propeller blade was not in the way of the muzzle. This interrupter gear was first used on Fokker’s first fighter, the Eindecker and more famously on the Fokker Triplane, the preferred aircraft of the German fighter ace Baron von Richtoffen and his flying circus.

When the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) Discovered this interrupter gear they included it in their design of the Sopwith Camel and in the United States Army Air Force’s (USAAF) Spad S.E5A.

On the 1st April 1918 the RFC became the Royal Air Force (RAF), which grew considerably in the last few months of the war and taught pilots from as far away as India, which was then part of the British Empire.

The Golden Age of Aviation (1919-1939)

This 20-year period was given the nickname “The Golden Age of Aviation,” because it was during these two decades that the wooden canvas covered biplanes turned into sleek, speedy, all metal monoplanes.

It was just 3 months after the November armistice that Germany began thinking about the importance of aircraft for commercial purposes, and so they began the first passenger airline service using heavier-than-air craft between Berlin, Leipzig, and Weimar. The British and French soon followed using converted bombers to carry passengers from London to Paris and back. In the United States passenger service began in the late 1920s.

In May 1923, two Army pilots, Lieutenants John A. Macready and Oakley G. Kelly, made the first non-stop transcontinental flight across the United States. The flight was 2,500 miles; it originated in New York and ended in California. The flight lasted 27 hours at an average speed of 93 mph.

In 1927, 4 years after this transcontinental flight the most famous pilot of this “Golden Age” made his legendary flight: He used a highly modified Ryan M-2 strut braced monoplane with enlarged fuel tanks which blocked his view, and flew from Roosevelt Field, New York across the Atlantic and landed 33 hours later in LeBourget Airport, Paris. This aircraft would become the most famous ever and was called the Spirit of St. Lewis. As for military developments in the “Golden Age” the 1930s saw the development of the B-17 for the USAAF and the Spitfire and Hurricane for the RAF. In September 1939 the Second World War broke out in Europe.

World War 2

The first thing people will think about when they think of Second World War aviation, will be the Supermarine Spitfire. Conceived by Reginald Mitchell it first flew on the 5th March 1936 and immediately showed great potential but Reginald died shortly after and did not see it enter RAF service. There were 20,351 Spitfires built with over 40 different variants of the Spitfire, from the standard twin bladed propeller Mark 1, down to the quad bladed contra-rotating propeller Mark 25 all powered by different variants of engine from the 990hp Merlin to the 2,375hp Griffon.

But this was not the only great British fighter there was, because on the 6th November 1935, before the Spitfire’s first flight, the Hurricane took off. Both these aircraft remained in RAF service until well into the 1950s.

One of the longest lasting aircraft ever built was the Douglas DC-3 Dakota. When it first flew in 1935 it was used solely for commercial purposes, but in the Second World War it was used for troop transport, reconnaissance purposes and became the most flexible of all aircraft in the war. It is still in service with the USAF and the RAF today as well as in some small air travel businesses.

The greatest invention for aviation since the Wright Brothers invented powered flight, was made by Frank Whittle in 1937 but was not taken seriously until the Germans discovered it and the first jet-propelled aircraft came into service dubbed the Messerschmitt Me-262 or Stormbird on July 18th 1942 with 2 BMW 003 turbojets under the wings. This and the Me-163 (rocket powered, but very unreliable and more likely to kill its own pilots than those of the RAF) could have changed the Luftwaffe’s fortunes had they developed them earlier to increase their 12 hour endurance time.

The only jet that the RAF built during the war, was the Gloster Meteor powered by two dH Halford H.I engines. Production of the Meteor ended in 1954, after 3,947 had been built. Only five of them are still flying.

Modern Aviation (1945-2003)

After the war ended in 1945 the world of aviation had changed for good. For example our previous allies, the Soviets, were developing their first jets with the release of the MiG-15 “Fagot” which first saw service in the Korean War. The 18000 built, made this the most built fighter.

On the other side of the Atlantic the Americans were building the main rival to the “Fagot” the F-86 “Sabre”. It was less powerful and heavier than the MiG-15 but better US training more than compensated this.

1950-60 -The 1950s saw the B-52 intercontinental bomber publicised. It has enormous bomb bays and 8 engines in pairs of two and has also been used for the maiden flights of the X-15 and others; also the RB-52 is used for reconnaissance missions. It has been in service for nearly 50 years and is expected to stay in service until 2015.

The Lockheed F-104 also entered service in 1958 but didn’t last long because they had a reputation for crashing-“Catch a falling Starfighter” was said a lot about the F-104.

1960-70 -Favourite aircraft of this decade were the English Electric Lightning and the Avro Vulcan both these aircraft entered the RAF in 1960. Unfortunately these aircraft are no longer flying but 3 Vulcan airframes air in working condition and funds are being collected in order to get them flying again.

In 1966 an unbelievable aircraft joined as a new member of the USAF, its name was SR-71 Blackbird. This superb aircraft was capable of more than 3 times the speed of sound and was also the very first stealth aircraft with special RADAR reflective material. NASA now uses them for research purposes because of the fact that it is so advanced it can survey more than 100,000sq miles an hour.

The 60s were also famous for another development in aviation it was 1969 when the Hawker Harrier found itself in the RAF. It was the beginning of V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing) that no one has been able to clone for almost 40 years with the pending launch of the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter).

1970-80 -In 1976 Fairchild designed the A-10 Thunderbolt, it has enough armour to repel a 23mm round and enough firepower to destroy an entire building. It was last seen in the recent Iraq war, but it seems that its career is limited because the USAF prefer high performance high speed fighter bombers such as the F-14 Tomcat released in 1972 with variable geometry wings.

1980-90 – On the subject of variable geometry wings the Panavia Tornado came into the RAF in 1986, they have now begun the process of being converted into GR-4s starting in 1999.

After the SR-71 the USAF decided to start a new stealth project. After rumours of its existence the F-117 was finally unveiled and shown to the general public in 1982. It was far slower than the Blackbird it had a much larger amount of flexibility because of its increased stealthiness and could be a fighter, bomber or a reconnaissance aircraft whereas the Blackbird was reconnaissance only.

1990-2003 -In this decade my favourite aircraft was sent to work for the USAF named the B-2 Spirit. It was the result of a project that was in progress from 1978 but its existence was not disclosed to the general public until November 1988. Its “flying wing” shape makes it the most recognisable aircraft in existence. It has a very low RCS (RADAR Cross Section) due to its zigzag air intakes and RADAR absorbing panels around the exhaust. Also its 4 engines are buried deep within its mid-wing section. Originally the USAF planned to procure 133 B-2 “Spirits” but due to the unit cost of $1.3Billion this was reduced to 16 in October 91 and currently 24 are in service. In my opinion nothing can replace the B-2.

Commercial Aviation 1950-2003

The last 50 years has also seen huge steps forward in the commercial industry for example the first double decked aircraft, the Boeing 747 which has been flying since 1968 and the first SST (Super Sonic Transport.) It overcame all the problems and so the Airbus/BAe (British Aerospace) Concorde was born. It also started a huge rivalry between the two largest aviation companies, Boeing and Airbus, who are fighting it out to be the most popular in the industry-which is a position currently held by the European company Airbus

The Future of Aviation

That was what has already happened in the world of aviation over the last century but what is going to be in store for the next 100 years?

One of the aircraft planned for release in the very near future is the Eurofighter Typhoon EF2000, which should be introduced in the summer of this year.

But the most promising of all the new technologies that are just seeing light is Smart Materials. These have the ability to change shape on command and could be used to produce flexible wings with no complicated control surfaces and much more agility. They will also be able to self-heal and planes could be converted from a huge bomber into a sleek, sophisticated fighter at the push of a button. They are similar to shape-memory alloys in that they can be “trained” to remember certain positions. Aircraft made of these materials could become a reality anytime in the next 20 years.

With the developments of UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles) pilots may soon not be needed in the skies, only the controller on the ground is needed. There are already UAVs in service such as the USAF’s Predator, but the Boeing is in the progress of designing their own UAV called the “Bird of Prey”.

More conventional aircraft are also being planned such as the Airbus A380-XXX, which will be part of their battle to keep their place as the number 1 air travel company, the A380 will be double decked with the top being full of shops and recreation facilities for Business and First class, and the lower deck being devoted to Economy Class passengers.

Two other aircraft are also being developed by Lockheed-Martin, the F-22 and the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) the JSF will replace Harriers and uses a different method of vertical takeoff because it uses fans in the centre of the aircraft instead of nozzles. The F-22 will be similar but devoted mainly to being stealthy.

Thus ends our journey through the centenary of powered aviation. I hope you enjoyed reading it and much as I did writing it, and I also hope that the next 100 years produces as much brilliant aircraft as this one.