In 1799, Sir George Cayley built the first true airplane, a kite mounted on a stick with a movable tail. It wasn’t what we would imagine today, but it proved his idea worked, and from that first humble glider evolved the amazing machines that have taken us to the edge of space at unimaginable speeds. The first manned flight was achieved by a young boy in a glider designed by Cayley in 1849. Using Cayley’s glider, in 1894, Otto Lilienthal made the first controlled flights, shifting his body weight to steer a small glider.
Inspired by previous successes, the Wright brothers experimented with aerodynamic surfaces to control an airplane in flight. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright, after four brief flights with their first powered aircraft, had invented the first successful airplane, after only four brief flights in their first powered aircraft.
After World War One, the world was engulfed by the dream to cross the Atlantic by plane. At this time, the media had a large influence on what would be considered interesting. Two British aviators, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, were able to complete this feat in 1919. They became heroes as they had accomplished this amazing new task. The next large feat would be a solo transatlantic flight. On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh and his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, a Ryan monoplane, flew nonstop New York to Paris, a flight of 3,600 miles. Both these feats appeased the media and people’s social ideas at the time.
In 1935, Howard Hughes set the landplane speed record at 352 mph in a Hughes H-1, a highly technological plane that he had built for himself. The plane was adapted with retractable landing gear and rivets that were flush with the body of the airplane. Both of these innovations reduced drag, and in return, increased speeds. Completed in 1947, the “Spruce Goose” was the largest airplane ever made at the time.
To take a break from the actual development of the plane itself, Hans von Ohain of Germany and Frank Whittle, a British engineer, were the designer of the first operational jet engine. Ironically the engineers were not collaborating and had never met, but their designs ended up being very similar. In 1937, Ohain succeeded in being the first person to develop an airplane successfully using the jet engine that he had invented. In result to Whittle and Ohain’s ingenious to craft these engines, the speeds at which planes flew saw a great jump. The Messerschmitt Me 262, the first production military plane to use a jet engine, flew at 541 mph, a speed almost unimaginable at the time. An astonishing twelve years later, the jet engine went from a military prototype to a common commercial airline plane. The developments in technology during this time period forever changed the outlook of the airplane.
Due to the recognition of iconic pilots, such as Charles Lindbergh, common civilians became more trusting of air travel. In order to accommodate for the growing number of people wanting to pursue air travel, airplanes had to grow larger. Social acceptance pushed airplanes from the first self-equitable passenger plane, in 1933, to the 50 passengers Douglas C-54 Skymaster in 1945. Because the of the people’s acceptance and astonishment of air travel, the plane’s flying distance and size both grew at a steady rate.
When we look at the amazing air travel technology that we have today, it is amazing to think that the first flying machine was a simple glider with a few small modifications. Since then, we have only seen aeronautics go up in value and pure amazement. Now we have planes that can hold up to 640 tons and fly up to 4,500 miles/h (7,200 km/h)! Weight and speed are only some of the developments that have astounded the masses over the years and it is astonishing to think that there are still so many possibilities when it comes to the large field of aeronautics.
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