Aviation Research Paper

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The airplane invented by the Wrights in 1903 found few practical uses until World War I, when its role in warfare led to rapid improvements in speed, range, and reliability. Further leaps forward during World War II paved the way for the air travel of today—safe and affordable for hundreds of millions of passengers.

Wilbur and Orville Wright are credited with inventing the airplane in 1903. What separated the brothers from all those before them who tried to build such a craft was, simply, that the Wright airplane was capable of sustained, powered, and controlled flight. Air passing over a wing generated lift, while surfaces on the craft manipulated some of the air, providing directional control—all of this sustained by an engine that provided thrust.

For the next eleven years the airplane was a solution in search of a problem: no one seemed to know what to do with it. Even at the start of World War I, aviation’s potential remained unclear—at least to the generals. But its flexibility soon became apparent, and the airplane found many roles in the war: air-to-air fighter, bomber, and observation platform.

War often leads to rapid technological advances. At the start of World War I most airplanes were at least biplanes—two wings—and were built of wood and fabric. Yet by war’s end the Fokker Company was producing airplanes with welded steel truss fuselages, while the Junkers company built monoplanes made entirely of metal. Speed, range, and reliability increased as well. And while the first four-engine airplane predated the war (Russian designer Igor Sikorsky’s Russky Vitaz), multiengine bombers of colossal size were fairly common by the end of it.

Interwar Years—Dawn of Commercial Aviation

In the period between the two world wars aviation’s commercial potential blossomed. Not only did planes fly passengers, they carried freight, mail, entertainers, and explorers. At the same time the airplane’s use expanded from within the industrialized world to encompass the entire globe.

Europeans were the first to establish regular, lasting commercial aviation. Many of the large, multiengine airplanes that survived the war were modified to carry passengers. Using these, several European nations established national airlines offering service within the continent. Still possessing colonies around the world, these powers saw the airplane as a fast way to move people to and from their possessions. They subsidized the airlines because they were flagships—demonstrations of prestige and power— and because without the subsidy the airlines would have gone bankrupt.

By contrast, the United States was more restrained about direct government subsidies for commercial ventures; lacking a major sponsor, the airplane remained something of an orphan. The U.S. government did offer financial support through the airmail system, and private companies flew the airmail and an occasional paying passenger, but little effort was made to cater to passenger traffic. A pivotal moment for aviation came in 1930 with the restructuring of the method by which companies were paid for the mail they carried. Rather than paying strictly by the weight of the mail, the new formula factored in internal volume. This spurred aircraft manufacturers to design new and larger planes able to carry passengers in enclosed cabins. Although the ruling applied only in the United States, it had ramifications the world over, for it led to the modern commercial airliner.

The airplane demonstrated its value in less developed parts of the world as well. Companies in South America employed single-engine airplanes such as the Junkers F-12 to reach remote outposts, while French Latecoeres carried mail from Europe down the west coast of Africa, and even across the Atlantic to Brazil.

Technological Developments

Although wood as an aircraft construction material had a long tradition, metal as an aircraft material grew in both popularity and use. This stemmed from several things: new knowledge about the properties of metal; new alloys; cultural embrace of a new material (such as duralumin) in place of an old one (wood); and aircraft accidents blamed on failed wooden components.

The development of the stressed-skin (monocoque) fuselage increased the useful internal volume of aircraft. A monocoque fuselage is a shell in which the loads carried by the aircraft in flight are borne by the fuselage’s skin. (An aluminum or composite canoe is an example of a monocoque shell.)

First proposed in the late nineteenth century, the idea of a variable-pitch propeller was impractical until aircraft routinely operated at more than 300 kilometers per hour; below that speed a fixed-pitch propeller performs well. The effect of changing the propeller’s pitch—the angle at which the blade meets the air—is not unlike having gears on a bicycle.

Researchers found that shrouding the engine with a cowl would provide both better cooling (most engines at the time were air-cooled) and lower drag. This last item translated into higher efficiency and greater speed, and manufacturers worldwide quickly adopted the cowling.

In addition to ground-based weather stations set up to inform airborne traffic of conditions en route, new navigation instruments to assist pilots in finding their way in clouds became available in the 1930s. These included radio navigation, which allowed a pilot to follow a course without any visual references, and gyroscopes. The ability to navigate without visual references outside the aircraft was known as “blind flying” or “instrument flight.”

In 1930 the Englishman Frank Whittle patented his idea for an aircraft turbine engine. Not long after he received his patent, Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain, a German aeronautical engineer, conceived and designed his own turbine engine, independent of Whittle’s efforts. Whittle was the first to operate a gas turbine aircraft engine, in 1937, but von Ohain’s design was the first to actually power an airplane, when it carried an HE 178 into the air in 1939. Both British and German turbojet aircraft saw military service during World War II, but they came too late to prove decisive.

While these technological developments increased the reliability and practicality of airplanes, water remained the preferred landing surface for most long-distance aircraft. This was because land-based runways entailed construction and maintenance costs, whereas water did not, and seven-tenths of the earth’s surface is water, affording almost limitless and free runways. Possessing numerous colonies around the globe, European nations found the airplane in general, and the seaplane in particular, the ideal means to establish quick access to other parts of the world. Great Britain led the way, with its large fleet of seaplanes crisscrossing the globe, carrying passengers and mail to Africa, Asia, and South America.

These and other developments came during a period in which there was little widespread public support for aviation. As often as not, aviation appeared more a sport than a practical pursuit, and it was uncommonly dangerous. Ironically, many of the technological advances came during a worldwide economic depression. Much of the push for these developments came from governments willing to support the fledgling technology for its potential, even while the marketplace remained skeptical about its value. This support usually came in the form of military funding, which, in the United States, kept several aircraft companies from failing.

In World War II the airplane was used in much the same way as it had been in World War I: as freighter, strategic and tactical bomber, long-distance fighter, observation platform, and ground attack machine. One of the few dramatic evolutions was in naval aviation: World War II introduced the airplane as a potent naval weapon flying from floating airports (aircraft carriers). And once again, war led to accelerated technological developments, including the adoption of autopilots, instrument landing systems, turbo-supercharged intercooled engines of extraordinary power and complexity, and the first ejection seats for aircraft. In spite of the similarities in the airplane’s use during the two world wars (a sign of a maturing technology), there were notable differences, among them the sheer number of airplanes produced for military use, and their capabilities. Both the Americans and the British, for example, regularly sent more than a thousand bombers on a single mission, each carrying several tons of bombs. The Boeing B-29 had a range approaching 6,500 kilometers and bomb payload of 10 tons. Even fighters could fly nearly 2,000 kilometers with additional fuel tanks.

With its extensive wartime use, the airplane’s reliability ceased to be a major concern. Additionally, since most aircraft in the period had flown from land-based airfields, new airports dotted the land. These new airports, coupled with improved engines and greater endurance, spelled the end of the era of flying boats, once the mainstay of international airlines.

Postwar Aviation

Of the wartime developments, the turbine engine has had the greatest impact, for it dramatically increased the speed at which aircraft can fly. But researchers found that as airplanes approached the speed of sound (Mach 1), they encountered compressibility. As an airplane approaches Mach 1 it compresses the air in front of it, creating shock waves that cause a number of problems, chief among them control. A swept wing, with an angle of 35 degrees or more, delayed this compression and reduced the control problems.

Technological Developments

Flying at supersonic speeds—exceeding Mach 1—was the holy grail of the aviation industry. Solving the control issues associated with compressibility enabled the X-1 to exceed Mach 1, in 1947. This success led to true supersonic aircraft, almost all of which were and are built for military use. Two different types of supersonic airliners were built, but they proved too expensive to remain in service.

With the maturation of the airplane’s shape and power, the next major development was the systems revolution: the advent of computerized control of aircraft and their systems in place of direct human and mechanical control. Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, enabled by the systems revolution, were the next step—aircraft that fly autonomously or are controlled by a pilot on the ground.

Computers, once rare, are now almost ubiquitous on modern aircraft, controlling or monitoring nearly everything related to flight. Linked to a network of satellites in the Global Positioning System (GPS), they enable one to navigate with remarkable precision and locate oneself anywhere in the world within a few meters or less.

Commercial Aviation

Following the end of World War II, the British had the greatest technological lead with turbine engines. Their De Havilland DH 106 Comet entered service in 1952, the world’s first pure jet airliner. That decade saw a number of other jet airliners come to market as well, including the Soviet Tupolev Tu-104, the Boeing 707, the Douglas DC-8, and the Sud Aviation Caravelle. Unlike its competitors, the twin-engine Caravelle was built with an entirely new idea in mind—short-distance flights between smaller cities, rather than longdistance and even intercontinental flights that best suited the larger, four-engine aircraft. The Caravelle pioneered an entire category of commercial aircraft— the short-haul airliner. In all this, flying remained an exclusive, expensive, and fairly uncommon activity. Economy of scale forced a gradual change, however, and commercial airliners grew in size or squeezed more seats into the same space, lowering ticket prices. Once luxurious machines resembling first-class rail cars in their accommodations, airliners increasingly mimicked buses. This change was typified by the Boeing 747, the largest airliner available in 1970, which was so large it had two decks.

Social Impact

In 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, claiming the Orteig Prize offered for the first nonstop flight between the two cities. Lindbergh’s impact was far from simple record setting: his success convinced many that aviation was more than a lark. One measure of his impact was the jump in air passengers in the years immediately following his flight. Insignificant in numbers before Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, airline passengers in the United States surged from 12,594 in 1927 to 52,934 in 1928. By the end of the twentieth century, jet-powered airliners had become the mainstay of commercial service worldwide, capable of great speeds (nearly 1,000 kilometers per hour in many instances) and range. These flying behemoths can ferry five hundred passengers at once from place to place, and their efficiency has had a dramatic effect on human mobility.

Despite economic crises, the threat of health pandemics and terrorism, and the occasional air disaster, every year countless people around the world fly thousands of miles in mere hours for both work and pleasure. In 2008, as many as 4.87 billion passengers took to the skies. Travel, once a luxury reserved for the wealthy who had the time and the money for a journey, is now accessible to an extraordinary swath of people. Almost no place on the planet is inaccessible, thanks to the airplane’s ability to deliver anyone to any destination quickly. This much air travel can’t help but have an impact on the environment; and in an era of heightened concern over carbon emissions and climate change, the air travel industry is having to consider and respond to these concerns.


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