This year marks 120th anniversary of flight in a heavier-than-air, motorized aircraft, and throughout that time the industry has seen significant advances in propulsion, controls, safety and design.
These are some of the most significant advances in history:
The Wright Flyer, 1903:
This was, of course, the first heavier-than-air aircraft.
Ohio bicycle salesmen and mechanics Wilber and Orville Wright were the original "magnificent men in their flying machine" when they each made two flights on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, N.C. in a freezing headwind.
A coin toss meant that Orville made the initial flight, lasting 12 seconds and traversing 120 feet. Its groundspeed was less than seven miles per hour at an altitude of about 10 feet.
The brothers were able to cover more ground with each succeeding flight that day, eventually traveling 852 feet during 59 seconds in the air.
The brothers continued improving upon their design and by 1905 they could control all three axis of movements: pitch, yawl, and roll.
But 1903 was the first.
Ryan NYP, "Spirit of St. Louis," 1927:
If the Wright brothers launched the world into the age of air travel, Charles Lindberg, who made the first trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris, gave air travel one of its biggest shots in the arm.
His solo flight, lasting 33 hours, 30 minutes, turned him into an instant celebrity, and interest in aviation skyrocketed.
The number of U.S. aircraft quadrupled and U.S. pilot license applications tripled from May 1927, when Lindberg made his historic flight, through the rest of that year.
U.S. commercial air travel became more commonplace also, jumping from 5,782 in 1926 to 173,405 in 1929.
Douglas DC-3, 1936:
The allure of air travel over car or rail is speed. But frequent refueling stops canceled airspeed out. Someone traveling from New York to Los Angeles, for example, would have to make as many as 15 stops, with many requiring changes in aircraft.
There were no true transcontinental flights; just a series of local flights.
The venerable Douglas DC-3 changed all that. A flight from coast-to-coast only required three filler-ups along the way, and now some 20 passengers could arrive relatively fresh a mere 15 hours after their initial departure.
Commercial air travel had come of age, thanks to the DC-3.
Piper J-3 Cub, 1938:
What the DC-3 did for commercial aviation, the Piper J-3 Cub did two years later for general aviation, that is sport or recreational aviation.
For a mere $1,000 you could take possession of one of these snazzy, chrome-yellow beauties, and Americans responded: nearly 20,000 units were built before the last one rolled off the assembly line in 1947.
The J-3 also saw serviced as a trainer. An estimated 80% of World War II military pilots were trained in these light, docile aircraft, and they were the primary trainer for the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
Lockheed Constellation, 1943:
The Constellation was the next step in commercial air travel after the DC-3.
It came about at the request of Howard Hughes, who was looking for a commercial aircraft for Trans World Airlines (TWA), where he was major stockholder.
He wanted an affordable aircraft that was capable of transport 40 passengers in comfort for a distance of at least 3,500 miles.
Lockheed answered the call with the "Connie," which also included a pressurized cabin for flight at greater altitudes, and hydraulic-assisted flight controls.
In order to get a leg up on his competitors, Hughes also requested that TWA have exclusive rights to purchase the new airliner, and soon TWA was second only to Pan American.
The last Constellation was manufactured in 1958.
Cessna 172 Skyhawk, 1956:
As a testament to its popularity, the Cessna 172 is still in production after having sold more than 43,000 units in its 67 years. That’s more planes sold than any other aircraft ever produced.
The Skyhawk evolved from the earlier Cessna 170. But while the 170 was a taildragger, the 172 had tricycle landing gear.
The 172 is now the most common aircraft used at civilian flight training schools, because of its stability, reliability and moderate cost.
Boeing 707, 1957:
The Boeing 707 was the first successful commercial passenger jetliner. Although the de Havilland Comet preceded it, the Comet was plagued with a bad reputation stemming from numerous accidents.
The 707 is a long-range, narrow body commercial aircraft and was Boeing’s first passenger jet.
The 707’s have been used by a wide range of carriers, including Pan Am, TWA, American and Air France, and are employed by the U.S. military to this day.
The 707 has become so popular that if you merely mention the number "707," everyone knows what you’re talking about.
It’s also become the subject of song. Roger Miller wrote a ditty called "Boeing Boeing 707" and the second verse of the late Gordon Lightfoot’s "Early Morning Rain" begins, "Out on runway number nine, Big 707's set to go."
Learjet 23, 1964:
The Learjet is to general aviation what the Boeing 707 was to commercial passenger aircraft.
William Lear designed and developed the Learjet 23 after a failed attempt to build a similar personal business jet with partners at the failed Swiss American Aviation Corporation. He saw a need for a small executive high-speed aircraft.
Lear’s design carried six to eight passengers at speeds of 560 mph, and it soon became the rough model for other aircraft manufacturers, including especially the family of Cessna Citations, which was launched in 1972.
Like the 707, Lears became so popular they were even immortalized in song. The Byrds did "The Lear Jet Song," and a verse in Carley Simon’s "You’re So Vain" goes, "Then you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun."
The 23 also helped launch a new industry: business jet aircraft charter companies.
Van’s Aircraft RV-3, 1971:
For Richard VanGrunsven, the third time was a charm, and led him to founding the most successful airplane kit company in history.
His first design, the RV-1, was plagued with performance issues, and his second never got past the drawing board. But the RV-3 turned out to be a real honey.
It’s a single seat, fixed gear, single engine, low wing tail dragger, and like a Harley, it even looks totally hot just sitting there — much like a miniature World War II warplane.
Its performance matches its appearance, with a 160 hp engine capable of taking it to speeds of 200 mph.
And while the fact that the RV-3 is only available in kit form may scare off some, it offers the owner-builder a sense of accomplishment and assures him that he knows exactly how every control functions.
Cirrus SR22, 2001:
Almost from the moment of its introduction, the SR22 has been one of the top selling four-seat, low wing, single engine personal aircraft in the country.
It has fixed tricycle landing gear and the fuselage is constructed of strong but lightweight carbon fiber.
The SR22 has an ingenious throttle design for easy power management, large LCD cockpit displays, and cruises at a 25,000-foot ceiling at a speed of 240 mph.
Finally it has something very innovative: if and when things get totally out-of-control, it has a whole-airplane recovery parachute system to float everyone back down to Earth.
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