From Wooden Planes to the Skies of Mars
by Vittorio Compagno for the Carl Kruse Blog
From the first attempts of the Wright brothers to the powerful Concord, the history of aviation is ever linked to the contemporary world. Though countless aeronautical experiments failed, with many men and women falling in their attempt to take aviation to the next level, all was not in vain because today more than a century after the first experiments with aircraft, we can say aviation has changed the way we live.
Helicopters and Zeppelins
Towards the end of the 19th century the first prototypes of “flying machines” were introduced. However, the inventors of the time still had no idea of the best method to simulate the flight of birds and enable people to take flight.
Given this significant problem, which always precedes great inventions, the focus shifted to two models. The first, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter, was a machine built in wood with a propeller and course adjustment mechanisms presented by Enrico Forlanini, in Milan in 1877.
The prototype of the modern helicopter flew for 30 seconds, before resting slightly on the ground, but it was already a demonstration of how technology could lead to flight.
The second model of a flying machine, more concrete than Forlanini’s promise of a breakthrough, was the airship, more properly the Zeppelin.
It was the airships patented by Count Von Zeppelin that had the most success, up to 25 versions produced until the split of the company (Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH) in 1938. Zeppelins proved to be useful flying machines for early 20th century society due to their ability to stay in the air for a long time, and bring correspondence, rescue, or simply be used for tourism. Zeppelins were widely deployed by the military, especially during the Great War by the German army, for reconnaissance and other purposes.
The Wright Flyer
On the morning of December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers tested their first heavier-than-air vehicle in Devil Hill, North Carolina. Named “heavier-than-air” because of its wooden core, as opposed to helium, a gas lighter than air used by Zeppelins. The first Wright “Flyer” was a rudimentary biplane powered by a 16 horsepower engine, and its first 59 seconds of flight was a milestone in modern aviation.
Those 59 seconds would eventually shorten continents, allowing any Parisian to be in New York in a few hours. High-speed travel, intercontinental breakfasts, dreams of space colonization, all arose from the laws of aerodynamics that allowed a small biplane to soar for a short time.
The First Planes
Not only the inventions of the Wright brothers, but also the contributions of Louis Bleriot, Santos Dumont and others brought forth the potential of the airplane.
The real turning point came during the First World War, when European entrepreneurs, struck by the difficulties of using the railway system to move about the continent, understood the importance of air transport.
After the end of the war, many railways were still unusable, so the rudimentary end-of-war bombers were converted to transport correspondence and to a limited extent, people.
Together with a network of airports and infrastructure, air flight became more accessible, in a new era in which, it was thought, aircraft would no longer be used to fight another war.
Pioneers such as Robert Peltiere and Louis Bleriot managed to demonstrate the potential of aeronautics even in its rudimentary stages.
Innovations rapidly multiplied, to where the use of airplanes for commercial purposes became viable. On August 25, 1919, the British company Air Transport and Travel made the first maiden flight of a commercial airplane, on which was mounted a 350 hp Rolls Royce “Eagle V” engine.
This trend took hold in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, where airplanes, reconverted war bombers, carried mail. Technological advances in aircraft structure and engines led the U.S. Postal Office aircraft to accept a limited number of passengers in addition to correspondence.
Aviation in World War II
Who, thinking of that technological proliferation for peaceful purposes, thought that planes would be used again in war?
Despite the economic and social damage to all European nations, World War II represented a significant acceleration for aviation. The need to deploy more and more aircraft did not stop only with reconnaissance, but also with active bombing and air superiority. During this period, the air force was the backbone of armies. To understand its importance, consider that the U.S. Air Force produced a total of 325,000 aircraft from 1939 to 1945.
The history of aeronautics and that of missiles often intersect, often diverge. In this case, during the world conflict, it can be said that the first situation arose. The first medium-long range rockets were the V2, perfected by Von Braun, and represented not only a formidable weapon, but also the first hope towards the dream of the most avant-garde science fiction writers: space travel.
Flights Become Intercontinental
After the war, the focus of aircraft manufacturing shifted to transportation. This is the case of England which, by perfecting the engines of its aircraft, managed to weave a first and rudimentary network of transport between Commonwealth nations. However, European progress paled compared with American companies. Lead by Boeing and Lockheed, the progress resulted in the first domestic flights, and later with intercontinental travel.
Real progress came with the famous “Seven Seas”, which thanks to its 3400 horsepower per engine, allowed uninterrupted flights of the continents (in fact, it was possible to travel from Los Angeles to London without stopping).
These new possibilities allowed thousands of people to access air travel, although travel was still reserved for the wealthiest. However, this movement gave advantages not only to travelers, but also to the countries that hosted them. At the same time, intercontinental tourism spread, which gave an enormous economic and cultural boost to the countries hit by the devastation of World War II.
The First Jets
The first aircraft powered by jet were built by Hans von Ohain, a German engineer who, beating the English competition in the field of jet propulsion, managed in 1939 to bring to the world the Gloster E.28 / 39.
During the invasion of Europe, American forces managed to recover advanced models of abandoned German jets, including the HO229, one of the most important aircraft of modern aviation.
From the point of view of transportation, the jet revolutionized the speed of intercontinental transport, making travel increasingly accessible and convenient, culminating in the famous Concorde which, until 2000, was still in service.
The Concorde promised to reach New York from London in an hour, but was later subject to limitations of maintenance, and the noise made when it reached the sonic boom, characteristic of airplanes with propulsion that exceeded the speed of sound.
Modern Aviation and What the Future Holds
The goal of any airline is to cut costs, which is why modern airplanes are mostly about engine efficiency rather than speed. In a century of globalization, the focus is increasingly on the transport of people and goods, rather than fighting wars, and the funds allocated to the search for ever more efficient engines bode well for the future of aviation.
However, the pinnacle of modern technology does not cross the skies of this planet, nor is it used in warfare or for the transport of people, or correspondence. The highest point of modern aviation is a small helicopter, a drone of insignificant dimensions, like that rudimentary prototype by Forlanini, so inspired by Leonardo’s drawings, which plows through Martian skies.
Today all of humanity’s knowledge and experience has led to that little Ingenuity drone, which needs long blades to move only for a few seconds through the thin Martian atmosphere.
But, like the Wright Brothers’ rudimentary prototypes, the paltry 40 seconds it takes the little drone to soar could be critical to the future of aviation, and humanity.
This Carl Kruse blog homepage is at https://carlkruse.at
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Vittorio include Retrofitting Classic Cars With Electricity, NFT Fever, and the State of Online Classes.
Find Carl Kruse also on TED.