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In 1799, Sir George Cayley built the first true airplane, a kite mounted on a stick with a movable tail. It was crude, 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 speeds faster than sound. The first manned flight was done 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 their success, Wilbur and Orville Wright experiment with aerodynamic surfaces to control an airplane in flight. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four brief flights at Kitty Hawk with their first powered aircraft. The Wright brothers had invented the first successful airplane.
After World War One, the world was engulfed by the dream to cross the Atlantic by plane. 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. With imminent fame aviators and airplane producers looked to be apart of the next feat, 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 plane he had built for himself with the newest technology. The plane was fashioned with retractable landing gear and rivets that were flush with the body of the airplane. Both of these innovations reduced drag to increase speeds. Completed in 1947, the “Spruce Goose” was the largest airplane ever made.
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 that successfully used a jet engine. With 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 technology of this time period has forever changed the outlook of the airplane. Due to the recognition of iconic pilots, such as Charles Lindbergh, the common civilian became more trusting of air travel. Because of the increased demand for air travel, airplanes must grow larger to accommodate. 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 acceptance and astonishment of the common masses, plane’s flying distance, and size both grew.
It is amazing to think that at the beginning of WWI (1914) military planes were built to fly at average speeds of around 70 miles per hour, but by the end of the war (1918) planes were averaging twice that speed. Since then, the plane’s abilities have only gone up with the fastest speed record being recorded at 4,500 miles/h (7,200 km/h)! Speed is only one example of how war has helped the development and it is astonishing to think that there are still so many possibilities in aeronautics.
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