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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    United States

    History of Flight from Around the World

    United States

    The history of the airplane is rooted in several centuries of European research into the forces operating on a body immersed in a fluid stream, culminating in 100 years of active flight experimentation, from the work of the Englishman Sir George Cayley (1773-1857), to that of the German gliding pioneer, Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896). By 1896, however, leadership in aeronautical research had passed to the United States, where pioneers like Octave Chanute (1832-1910) and Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906) were setting the stage for the achievement of powered, heavier-than-air flight.

    On 6 May 1896, Langley, the third secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, succeeded in launching the first reasonably large, steam-powered model aircraft on flights of up to three quarters of a mile over the Potomac River. Later that year, Chanute, a prominent American civil engineer and internationally recognized authority on the problems of flight, led a band of experimenters into the sand dunes east of Chicago, where they flew a series of gliders, including a very advanced biplane that pointed the way to the future of aircraft structures.

    Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948), the proprietors of a bicycle sales, repair, and manufacturing shop in Dayton, Ohio, wrote to the Smithsonian Institution and to Octave Chanute in 1899-1900, requesting information on aeronautics and announcing their decision to begin their own experiments. The Wrights were superb self-trained engineers who developed an extraordinarily successful research strategy that enabled them to overcome one set of challenging problems after another, the full extent of which few other experimenters had even suspected.

    They moved toward the development of a practical flying machine through an evolutionary chain of seven experimental aircraft: one kite (1899), three gliders (1900, 1901, and 1902) and three powered airplanes (1903, 1904, and 1905). Each of these aircraft was a distillation of the lessons learned and the experience gained with its predecessors. In the fall of 1901, puzzled by the failure of their earliest gliders to match calculated performance, the brothers built their own wind tunnel and designed a pair of brilliantly conceived balances that produced the precise bits of data required to make accurate performance calculations.

    The brothers made the first four sustained, powered flights under the control of a pilot near Kitty Hawk, N.C., on the morning of 17 December 1903. Over the next two years they continued their work in a cow pasture near Dayton, Ohio. By the fall of 1905, they had achieved their goal of a practical flying machine capable of remaining in the air for extended periods of time and operating under the full control of the pilot. The air age had begun. Unwilling to unveil their technology without the protection of a patent and a contract for the sale of airplanes, the Wrights did not make public flights until 1908, at which point they emerged as the first great international heroes of the century.

    American aeronautical hegemony was short-lived, however. Faced with the threat of war, European leaders invested heavily in the new technology. Government officials and wealthy private citizens encouraged the development of aviation by sponsoring speed, altitude, and distance competitions; by purchasing aircraft in considerable numbers; by establishing aerial units in their armed forces; and by creating aeronautical laboratories and funding research and development efforts. The United States, the birthplace of aviation, did not invest in aeronautics, and fell woefully behind Europe. By 1913, the U.S. Army could boast a grand total of six active pilots, while the entire U.S. aeronautical industry employed fewer than 170, most of whom worked for Glenn Hammond Curtiss.

    A motorcycle builder from Hammondsport, N. Y., Curtiss was the most successful of the handful of American aircraft builders who entered the field during the decade following the invention of the airplane. He won the first James Gordon Bennett trophy in 1909 with a speed of just over 47 miles per hour. In spite of the Wright Brothers' legal efforts to curb his activity, he had, by 1914, established himself as a supplier of training aircraft to the U.S. government and flying boats to Allied navies.

    Americans flew into combat in World War I aboard aircraft that had been entirely designed, and for the most part manufactured, in Europe. By the Armistice, however, U.S. industry was producing the Liberty engines that would power American aircraft for the next decade, including the Fokker T-2 that made the first non-stop coast-to-coast flight in 1923, and the Douglas World Cruisers that completed the first aerial voyage around the globe the following year. Moreover, the advanced American designs that would have seen combat had the war continued into 1919 were available for record flights in the immediate post-war era, such as the first transatlantic flight by the giant U.S. Navy flying boat, NC-4. From the legendary barnstormers to the earliest airmail operators, the pioneers of American commercial aviation began business with war surplus equipment and help from the federal government.

    Postwar congressional investigations underscored the problems of a limited market and high research and development costs faced by American airframe and engine manufacturers. Recognizing the growing importance of the airplane to national defense and international prestige, federal officials took a series of steps to strengthen, support, and regulate the aviation industry between 1915 and 1940.

    Established by Congress in 1915, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) conducted programs of research and development that, by 1925, had demonstrated the value of basic research in flight technology. Technical reports issued by the agency introduced U.S. aircraft designers to a host of improvements, including revolutionary airfoils; improved propellers, engines, and instruments; and various streamlining techniques. NACA engineers experimented with wing flaps and other high-lift devices and explored innovative construction techniques and new materials.

    Congressional leaders also took steps to establish a market for American manufacturers. The Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925 authorized the use of private companies for the delivery of air mail, providing a vitally important government subsidy to the first American air carriers in an era when paying passengers were few and far between. The postal subsidies not only supported the industry, but also provided federal administrators with a means of shaping the development of the domestic airline system. The Air Mail Act of 1934 enabled New Deal officials to force a restructuring of the entire aviation industry. Procurement Acts for the Army Air Corps and the Navy air arm that passed in 1926 sought to provide American manufacturers with fair access to the military market.

    In addition to laying a foundation for the new industry, federal officials also exercised regulatory authority, both in an effort to support the growth of commercial aviation and to protect consumers. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 created a Bureau of Aeronautics within the Commerce Department that regulated commercial air carriers, licensed pilots, and certified aircraft, and established aids to aerial navigation. The Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and the Civil Aeronautics Board and Civil Aeronautics Administration Act (1940) were aimed at improving passenger safety, route markings, and air traffic control systems.

    By the 1930s, a new generation of low-wing streamlined, all-metal airplanes were flowing off engineering drawing boards from Buffalo to Long Beach and Seattle. Aircraft like the Boeing 247D, the Douglas DC-3, and the Sikorsky, Martin, and Boeing flying boats marked the United States' return to a position of world aeronautical leadership.

    The time between the wars was the golden age of American aviation. The products of companies like Lockheed, Boeing, Douglas, Curtiss, and Northrop were instantly recognizable by children from coast to coast. The pilots who flew higher, faster, and farther-fliers like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Doolittle, Wiley Post, Richard Byrd, Howard Hughes, and Jacqueline Cochrane-were the heroes of the air age.

    The airplane had become an instrument of commerce, but it also gave birth to total war during World War II. Traditional definitions of the battlefield lost their meaning in an age when destruction could be rained from the sky. From the great carrier battles of the Pacific, through years of fierce combat fought four miles up in the sky over Europe, to the dawn of the nuclear age, the products of American aircraft builders carried the day and shaped the course of history. Traditional piston-engine, propeller-driven aircraft technology reached its fullest development during World War II, which also witnessed the first operational use of revolutionary gas turbojet engine technology.

    Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union led to increased defense spending and a continued drive for supremacy in aerospace technology. The steady flow of military funding for flight research and development resulted in a string of technological tri-umphs, from the first faster-than-sound flight by the Bell X-1 in 1947 to the launch of the first successful U.S. satellite by a modified army ballistic missile in 1958.

    Commercial air transportation came of age in the post-war world. World War II provided a legacy of well-traveled air routes stretching around the globe, experienced aviators, proven equipment, and experience in managing international air traffic. By 1950, the airliner was positioned to replace the railroad and the ocean liner as the primary means of long- distance travel. The entry of the first turbojet airliners into scheduled service in 1952 accelerated the pace of the air transport revolution. The first four decades following the end of World War II were especially good years for the American airframe and engine industry, with the jet-propelled products of Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Lockheed, and other U.S. firms dominating the international air routes. The result of the postwar air transport boom was nothing short of a social revolution. Regional and local airlines and air-freight operations joined the giant international air carriers to create an aerial network linking every corner of the globe. The economic, social, and political consequences included the creation of global markets, opportunities for global travel un-dreamed of a generation before, and increasing cultural homogeneity.

    The years since 1975 have brought change to the U.S. aerospace industry. The end of the Cold War, the high cost of advanced technology, and reduced defense spending have had an impact on the market for military aerospace systems. The deregulation of air commerce brought both fluidity and uncertainty to the airlines. Pioneering companies such as Pan American World Airways disappeared or were altered beyond recognition. Legendary aircraft manufacturing firms were swallowed up by corporate mergers that drastically reduced the total number of airframe producers. While Boeing continued to dominate the world market for airliners, Airbus emerged as a genuine European rival. The forging of partnerships with foreign manufacturers became an important element in the sale of aircraft to other nations.

    Beyond its importance to national defense and the movement of freight and passengers around the globe, the aerospace industry has been one of the most important factors driving technological advance in a wide variety of fields. The great breakthroughs in materials science and technology, electronics, and computer sciences were inextricably linked to the needs of aviation and space flight. In the century since Kitty Hawk, the aerospace enterprise has changed the world in many ways and enormously expanded our vision of the possible.

    Provided to the AIAA for the sole purpose of its Evolution of Flight Campaign.