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NAICS: 33-6411 Aircraft Manufacture

SIC: 3721 Aircraft Manufacturing

NAICS-Based Product Codes: 33-64111 through 33-6411100, and 33-64113 through 33-64113021


No one knows how long humans have dreamed of flying, but this concept informed some of Western culture's earliest stories. Around the time BC became AD, the Roman poet Ovid told the tale of Daedalus and his son Icarus. The first storytellers as well as their audiences could see snow persisting on the highest mountain peaks during warm weather; clearly, air did not grow warmer with altitude, and the sun would not have melted the wax holding Icarus's feathers to his wings.

A modern audience could note how the genius of Daedalus, using observation to mimic birds' wing shapes, was rendered irrelevant by his son's reckless behavior. Passion defeated by reality was a lesson that would-be aeronauts would discover repeatedly, frequently at a high price. This essay summarizes the history of heavier-than-air, fixed-wing powered aircraft.

Orville and Wilbur Wright had many self-taught engineer-inventor contemporaries who worked through repeated failures. The Wright brothers were partly inspired by the glider experiments of the German Otto Lilienthal and the Scottish engineer Percy Pilcher. Although these persons died while testing gliders of their own design, both thought one secret of flight was the curved wing, and they published their findings. The Wrights based their design on that principle, created a steering mechanism, and added a 12-horsepower motor.

On December 17, 1903, their 750-pound plane launched from a railroad track at less than seven miles per hour, attained an altitude of perhaps ten feet, and landed after 120 feet. That beginning led to a new world in which gravity, while impossible to ignore, could be successfully challenged and even, less than seventy years later, overcome as humans traveled to land on the moon.

This flight was challenged for decades in the press and the courts, since wealth and fame would follow those who were actually first. Gabriel Voisin, who along with his brother, Charles, was the first to build aircraft in France on a commercial basis, scoffed at the influence of the Wright brothers and other aviation pioneers. Nonetheless, the early trickle of aviation pioneers soon grew to a swarm.

A company founded by Glenn Curtiss made the first commercial sale of an aircraft in 1909 to the Aeronautic Society of New York. In the same year, one of the Wright brothers succeeded in meeting U.S. Army specifications for an aircraft and sold it to the government for $30,000. The Wrights promptly sued Curtiss for patent infringement, virtually freezing the aircraft industry in the United States until World War I.

Despite several impressive demonstration flights the Wrights performed for the U.S. Army, its officials were unmoved. The Wrights took their show to Europe, where they flew for the German, French, and British armies. In the process, they prompted interest with such European aviation pioneers as Louis Blériot, Willy Messerschmidt, Anthony Fokker, and Marcel Dassault. Aviation made for good entertainment. Blériot and others such as Louis Paulhan built their own airplanes and began touring flying circuses in the first decade of the twentieth century.

With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, France and Germany were quick to apply aviation to the battlefield, producing the world's first aces, Roland Garros and Manfred von Richthoven. The United States Army embraced air power in 1914 by creating an aviation group within the Signal Corps. By 1918 the government showed its interest in aviation through expansion of an air squadron and active intervention in the industry. Having seen the effect of air power in Europe during World War I, the government resolved not to see American air power stunted by legal wrangling or patent hoarders. What emerged was a loosely policed competition for government contracts, primarily military and later airmail business. Hundreds of airplane builders emerged from garages and warehouses.

The aircraft industry received a tremendous boost in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh completed the first successful trans-Atlantic flight using a modified Ryan Aeronautics tri-motor. Lindbergh's daring and nearly fatal stunt so strongly revived interest in aviation that investors began pumping millions of dollars into aircraft companies.

In August of 1929, Allan Loughead and Fred Keeler sold the Lockheed Company to a group of automotive investors calling themselves the Detroit Aircraft Company. The company drew tremendous investor interest after aviatrix Amelia Earhart crossed the Atlantic with one of the company's Vegas aircraft. One month later, world financial markets were buffeted by the stock market crash that plunged the nation into the Great Depression. Aviation company stocks, valued at more than $1 billion on total earnings of more than $9 billion, were decimated.

The Depression would have destroyed the aircraft industry were it not for government support. It became official policy to award contracts to an increasingly privileged club of manufacturers, so that their expertise could be preserved and developed for military purposes. American aviation was controlled by three huge vertical monopolies, each maintaining huge airframe and engine manufacturing facilities and airline services.

While military preparations were stepped up in the 1940s, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, sparked tremendous growth in the aircraft industry. Huge amounts of government money were poured into engineering and production facilities. President Roosevelt ordered 60,000 aircraft in 1942 and 125,000 the year after.

Emerging from the war with tremendous manufacturing capacity and engineering talent, the Douglas, Boeing, and Lockheed companies dominated the commercial aircraft industry. Competitors, including Curtiss, Martin, and Convair, were forced to exit the market in rapid succession, taking refuge in the more protected military businesses. Hughes Aircraft, famed for its massive Spruce Goose amphibian freighter, failed to break into the production market.

With fixed-wing designs having reached the peak of their development in the 1960s, we can glance back to the early Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, who drew many flying machine designs. Whether any of these devices were constructed remains a matter of debate, but it is clear from his notebooks that human-powered flight fascinated da Vinci. However, the only materials he had access to were hardwoods and linen, and they were too dense to support this dream. Almost five centuries later, and bringing matters neatly full-circle, in 1977 the Gossamer Condor, built mostly of lightweight plastics, enabled the first human-powered flight.


American aircraft companies build and sell airplanes for three distinct markets: the military, commercial aviation, and general aviation, which includes business aviation. From the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the American military services had an unending appetite for sophisticated aircraft, which American firms attempted to satisfy. The end of the Cold War, which reduced military spending around the world, provided the greatest challenge for American aircraft manufacturers, who had grown accustomed to lucrative contracts from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

Developing commercial aircraft posed far greater risks than those of military aircraft. The development process for a passenger airliner capable of carrying several hundred people was lengthy and costly, requiring manufacturers to anticipate the needs of airlines far in advance and to gamble large amounts of money on the product's success. For this reason, Boeing canceled its development of a super jumbo aircraft. Manufacturers found a more stable market by designing new or modifying existing aircraft in response to the demands of carriers, who typically asked for improved fuel efficiency and more seating. By the early 1990s industry estimates showed that a new medium-sized airliner cost more than $2 billion to develop, with engines costing another $1.5 billion.

Due to the risks involved, commercial aircraft manufacturers tended to modify existing airframes rather than reinventing; most existing commercial airliners changed little in the last half of the twentieth century. However, some exciting new aircraft developments occurred in the areas of speed, range, capacity, and fuel efficiency. Many manufacturers by the early 2000s worked cooperatively, jointly developing a design and dividing work among partners if the design was successful. The merger of Boeing Company of Seattle, Washington, and the McDonnell Douglas Company of St. Louis, Missouri in 1997 resulted in economies of operation in many areas. Boeing concentrated on long-range, fuel-efficient planes with a slightly higher passenger capacity, justifying this with the ratio of development costs. Airbus continued to pursue the super jumbo concept, announcing its new model in 2007.

American manufacturers historically produce approximately 60 percent of the world's general aviation aircraft and 30 percent of the helicopters. The major U.S. manufacturers of general aviation aircraft are the Beech Aircraft Corp., Fairchild Aircraft Inc., the Cessna Aircraft Co., Gulfstream Aerospace, and Learjet Inc.

Based on data published in the Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2007, Figure 1 provides an overview of U.S. aircraft sales by military aircraft and civilian aircraft from 1990 through 2005. Annual fluctuations were greater for civilian aircraft sales than for military aircraft sales which saw slight declines in the early 1990s followed by a flattening out and slow increments thereafter.

Most aircraft manufacturers derive much of their profits from producing replacement and upgrade parts for their airplanes. Since large commercial jets represent such a large investment—a new twin-engine passenger jet may cost several hundred million dollars—airlines try to keep them in the air for many years. Moreover, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) sets stringent guidelines on repair and replacement procedures for passenger aircraft.

By 2003 the aircraft industry was struggling in the wake of downturns in the air transportation market. The leading U.S. airlines lost more than $7 billion in 2001 and more than $3 billion through the first half of 2002. number of factors, including a slack economy, a decline in travel following the attacks of September 11, and heightened competition from discount airlines, contributed to the air transportation sector's woes. In December of 2002, United Airlines—which accounted for some 20 percent of U.S. flights—filed for bankruptcy after losing $4 billion over two years and laying off 20,000 employees.

U.S. manufacturers shipped about 4,088 units of complete civilian aircraft (fixed wing, powered craft; helicopters; and non-powered types of civil aircraft) in 2002, valued at approximately $34.7 billion. In terms of unit shipments, this figure represented a decrease from 2001, when the industry shipped 4,541 units valued at 41.8 billion, and from 2000 when shipments numbered 5,162 civil aircraft valued at $38.6 billion.

The Aerospace Industries Association forecasted that shipments of complete civil aircraft would total 2,751 in 2003, with an estimated value of about $25 billion. Some 275 airliners were expected to account for the majority of this total ($18 billion). According to Standard & Poor's Industry Surveys, Avitas, Inc. expected aircraft orders to fall from an estimated 816 in 2001 to 561 in 2002, after which levels would steadily improve, reaching a forecasted 973 by 2005. During the same timeframe, Avitas expected aircraft deliveries to fall from an estimated 1,148 in 2001 to 941 in 2002 and 707 in 2003. After 2003, deliveries were expected to improve slowly through 2005, when levels were forecast to reach 829.


Boeing Company

In 1997 Boeing Company was the world's largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft, and was NASA's leading contractor. The company employed more than 200,000 people in 1999 in more than 60 countries worldwide. However, by 2002 it had reduced its workforce to 166,000. Company revenues were $54.1 billion in 2002, which represented a drop since 2001 of nearly 83 percent. During the late 1990s, production problems resulted in lost aircraft orders from companies such as British Airways, United Parcel Service, and Airbus Industries. These problems cost Boeing millions of dollars and threatened its standing as the top manufacturer.

Airbus S.A.S.

Airbus surpassed Boeing's orders in 2001 and 2002. According to Air Transport World, Airbus reported net orders of 233 planes in 2002, compared to Boeing's 176. However, Boeing was still the market leader in deliveries, with 56 percent of the total market share. Airbus began as a five-nation European consortium named Airbus Industrie. It was conceived as a European answer to America's domination of the large commercial transport market. By the early 2000s Airbus was restructured into a corporation named Airbus S.A.S. The company's majority shareholder (80 percent) is the European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co. BAE Systems of the United Kingdom holds the remaining 20 percent interest.

Northrop Grumman Corporation

Based in Los Angeles, California, Northrop Grumman Corporation this company employed 96,800 people in 2001. The company is responsible for the design, development, and manufacture of aircraft (including the less-than-perfectly-concealed Stealth Bomber), aircraft sub-assemblies, and electronic systems for the military. In addition to building ships, the company also designs, develops, operates, and supports computer systems. Sales totaled $17.2 billion in 2002. That year, Northrop Grumman saw its net income fall 85 percent, reaching $64 million.

Beech Aircraft Corporation

Best known for its line of Beechcraft propeller and jet airplanes, Beech Aircraft Corporation is one of several American manufacturers of small aircraft. Beech competes with Cessna, Piper, and Lear for shares of such markets as private pilots, small air taxi services, corporate customers, and military forces. Beech also manufactures a variety of aircraft parts and special systems for larger companies, principally McDonnell-Douglas.

In 1990 Beech recorded its best year, turning out 433 aircraft and collecting $1.1 billion in sales. Also in 1990, the new Starship model won certification. In 1992, Beech's 60th anniversary year, the company's 50,000th aircraft rolled out of the factory. That same year, however, a sales slump, attributed to a ten percent federal luxury tax, caused the company to cut back production and lay off 180 administrative staff.

Due to its 1900 and Jayhawk projects, Beech remains the largest of the small aircraft manufacturers, though Cessna builds more private aircraft. It offers a complete line of advanced aircraft, from the single-engine Bonanza, to the twin-engine Baron and Super King Air series, to the futuristic Starship. The bulk of Beech's more recent success, however, lies with its Beechjet and 1900 airliners. Barring any severe depression in small aircraft markets, Beech is likely to retain its leading position in this sector of the aviation industry.

Cessna Aircraft

Cessna Aircraft is one of the most famous names in small planes. A subsidiary of Textron, Cessna manufactures business jets, utility turboprops, and small single-engine planes. Best known for its small prop planes, Cessna is also a leading maker of business jets; it makes nine variations of its popular Citation jet. Its utility turboprop plane, the Caravan, has freight, bush, amphibious, and commercial (small connecting flights) applications. Cessna's single-engine planes are typically used for personal and small-business purposes. As it prepared to enter the 21st century, Cessna remained the largest private aircraft manufacturer in the United States. With its line of cargo craft and advanced private jets, including the new Citation X, Cessna still offered the broadest product range in the industry. With the company's relationship to owner, Textron, on solid ground, Cessna looked certain toward the end of the first decade of the 2000s to remain America's leading small aircraft manufacturer.


The number of units produced per year by the U.S. civilian aircraft industry is approximately one-thousandth that of the automotive industry. The U.S. aerospace industry shipped a total of 4,068 civil and 450 military aircraft in 2005 according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration. On average, commercial transport aircraft cost $300 per pound. The use of relatively advanced materials combined with the production of intricate component forms without net-shape processes contribute to this higher cost per pound. The airframes of commercial aircraft are currently largely aluminum (70-80%) with smaller weight fractions of steel, titanium, and advanced composites. The gas turbine engines that power these aircraft use alloys of nickel (∼40 percent), titanium (∼30%), and steel (∼20%), with the balance being advanced composites and aluminum.

A combination of composite materials and computer design has grown from the occasional application for a nonstructural part (such as baggage compartment doors) to the construction of complete airframes. For military applications, these materials have the advantage of being less detectable by radar.

Some aircraft of composite materials began to appear in the late 1930s and 1940s; these were usually plastic-impregnated wood materials. The largest and most famous example of this design is the Duramold construction of the eight-engine Hughes flying boat, popularly known as the Spruce Goose. A few production aircraft also used Duramold materials and methods.

Fiberglass, fabrics made up of glass fibers, were first used in aircraft in the 1940s and became common by the 1960s. Composite is the term used for different materials that provide strengths, light weight, or other benefits not possible when these materials are used separately. They usually consist of a fiber-reinforced resin matrix. The resin can be vinyl ester, epoxy, or polyester, while the reinforcement might be any one of a variety of fibers, ranging from glass through carbon, boron, and several other proprietary types.

To these basic elements, strength is often gained by the adding of a core material, essentially making a structural sandwich. Core materials such as plastic foams (polystyrene, polyurethane, or others), wood, honeycombs of paper, plastic, fabric or metal, and other materials, are surrounded by layers of other substances to create a structural sandwich. This method has been used to create, for example, Kevlar, used in aircraft panels, and Lucite, superior to glass for aircraft windows and canopies.

One advantage of composites is the ability to form them into a wide variety of shapes, accomplished by various methods. The simplest is laying fiberglass sheets inside a form, infusing the sheets with a resin, letting the resin cure, and polishing the result; this is how synthetic canoes are constructed. More sophisticated techniques involve fashioning the material into specific shapes with complex machinery. Some techniques use molds; others employ vacuum bags that allow atmospheric pressure to force parts into the desired shape.

Composite materials allow aircraft engineers to design lighter, stronger, and cheaper streamlined parts simply not possible when using metal or wood. Composites use has spread rapidly throughout the industry and will probably continue to be developed in the future.


Aircraft parts manufacturing can be seen as predating the invention of powered aircraft. The Wright Brothers' first airplane, little more than a propeller-driven kite, was equipped with cables, chains, and an engine built by others. In one sense, Orville and Wilbur Wright invented nothing; they merely designed and assembled their aircraft from existing parts. However, this view is too simplistic, since the Wrights put these parts together in a way no one had done before.

The American aircraft industry can be divided into four segments. In one segment, manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. build the wings and fuselages that make up the airframe. Meanwhile, companies such as General Electric and Pratt & Whitney manufacture the engines that propel aircraft. The third segment covers flight instrumentation, an area where the most profound advances in aviation have taken place. But the fourth segment, broadly defined by the industrial classification aircraft parts not otherwise classified, includes manufacturers of surface control and cabin pressurization systems, landing gear, lighting, galley equipment, and general use products such as nuts and bolts.

Aircraft manufacturers rely on a broad base of suppliers to provide the thousands of subsystems and parts that make up their products. There are more than 4,000 suppliers contributing parts to the aerospace industry, including rubber companies, refrigerator makers, appliance manufacturers, and general electronics enterprises. This diversity is necessary because in most cases it is simply uneconomical for an aircraft manufacturer to establish, for example, its own landing light operation. The internal demand for such a specialized product is insufficient to justify the creation of an independent manufacturing division.

There is a second aspect to this distribution tier, since aircraft manufacturers have found it cheaper and more efficient to purchase secondary products from other manufacturers, who may sell similar products to other aircraft companies, as well as automotive manufacturers, railroad signal makers, locomotive and ship builders, and a variety of other customers. For example, an airplane builder such as Boeing, Grumman, or Beech might purchase landing lights from a light bulb maker such as General Electric. Such subcontractors supply a surprisingly large portion of the entire aircraft. On the typical commercial aircraft, a lead manufacturer such as McDonnell Douglas may actually manufacture less than half of the aircraft, though it is responsible for designing and assembling the final product.

When a major manufacturer discontinues an aircraft design, as Lockheed did with its L-1011 Tristar, a ripple effect is caused that affects every manufacturer that supplied parts for that aircraft. Therefore, parts suppliers that make up the third tier of distribution, strive to diversify their customer base to ensure the decline of one manufacturer will be tempered by continued sales to others. Given the unstable nature of the industry, parts manufacturers also attempt to find customers outside the aircraft business.


The initial purposes of the Wright Brothers were identical to those of the thousands using balloons, gliders, and even kites in the centuries preceding them: to rise above the ground, stay aloft as long as possible, and to conclude with a landing from which one could walk away. Fascination led to experimentation, and the first widespread use of fixed-wing airplanes was entertainment, with exhibitions performed for a rapidly-growing audience. World War I shortly followed, and pilots moved quickly from enemy observation to techniques including dogfighting, naval attack bombing, and the perfection of strategic bombing tactics that would in World War II become carpet bombing.

Private concerns carried mail by aircraft before the war, and then the U.S. government established its own airmail service. However, The Kelly Airmail Act of 1925 returned airmail service to private bidders after a series of crashes by the government's air service. Postmaster William Folger Brown encouraged the formation of large airline companies by carefully awarding profitable airmail contracts. Boeing acquired numerous private airmail companies and their lucrative contract rights; in 1928 they were banded together to form the National Air Transport Company. The following year, Boeing and Rentschler merged their airframe engine businesses to form the United Aircraft & Transportation Company. By the end of 1929, the company had taken over two propeller makers as well as Northrop's Avion company and laid out an air transportation network that later became United Air Lines.

Most people in the twenty-first century take air travel for business and especially for pleasure as a normal part of life, but the first air passenger services did not begin until 1937, when the emergence of the DC-3 and Electra enabled airlines to make money from passenger services alone and end their reliance on airmail. Many of the early passengers became airsick, so for decades, flight attendants could only be hired after completing nursing training.

Air travel for business and leisure continued to grow rapidly in the 1960s and the transition to jets was virtually complete by the middle of the decade. Yet the potential market remained largely untapped; as late as 1962, two-thirds of the American population had never flown. In 1961, Eastern inaugurated an hourly, unreserved shuttle service connecting New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston. There were major safety advances, although traffic growth strained the air traffic control system, and there was growing conflict between increasing volume and safety. Busy airports experienced conflicts between scheduled and business aircraft operations.

Despite financial pressures, air transportation was a critical part of the economy at the end of the twentieth century. Domestic traffic, 321 million passengers in 1984, rose to 561 million by 1998. United had a fleet of more than seven hundred airliners, and American and Delta had more than six hundred each by 2000. Perhaps the strongest indicator of the importance of the industry came after the hijacking of four airliners on September 11, 2001, in terrorist attacks on the United States. The federal government cancelled all air traffic for several days. Even after resumption, traffic dropped sharply, since much of the public was reluctant to fly again. Congress immediately appropriated approximately $15 billion in direct grants and loan guarantees to scheduled carriers, since many tottered on the brink of financial collapse. Manufacturers also suffered, because many airlines postponed or cancelled orders in response to the drop in passenger traffic and reduced schedules. Flight delays, overcrowding, overbooking, and cancellations are some of the incidents that still traumatize passengers. Nevertheless, long-term growth in the early twenty-first century looks favorable and though various carriers continued to dodge in and out of bankruptcy, by 2007 air traffic neared pre-9/11 levels.


Even a single-engine, single-wing airplane contains thousands of parts whose peak functioning is essential to a safe landing. Indeed, a significant part of all aircraft control panels are instruments indicating whether the other instruments are working correctly; it's not as though, when something goes wrong, the pilot can pull over to the nearest cloud. The categories considered in this section include instrumentation systems, engine instruments, and fuel. Products produced by these industry sectors are necessary to getting aircraft off the ground, keeping them in the air, and landing them at controllable speeds.

Guidance and Control Instrumentation

The products of this industry relevant to this essay include radar systems, navigation systems; flight and navigation sensors, transmitters, and displays; gyroscopes; airframe equipment instruments; and speed, pitch, and roll navigational instruments.

Main suppliers of search and navigation equipment are the same contractors who supply the larger U.S. aerospace and defense industry. Although not necessarily the most prolific producers of search and navigation instruments, many of the largest and most recognizable corporations in the United States are contributors, including AT&T, Boeing, General Electric, General Motors, and IBM.

A substantial majority of the industry's product types fall into the avionics (aviation electronics) classification, which includes aeronautic radar systems, air traffic control systems, and autopilots.

Historically, the primary customer for industry products has been the U.S. government—in particular the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Search and detection systems and navigation and guidance systems and equipment ($29.1 billion worth of shipments in 2001) constitute 91 percent of the total search and navigation market and include the following product groups: light reconnaissance and surveillance systems; identification-friend-or-foe equipment; proximity fuses; radar systems and equipment; sonar search, detection, tracking, and communications equipment; specialized command and control data processing and display equipment; electronic warfare systems and equipment; and navigation systems and equipment, including navigational aids for aircraft,

During the 1970s the Global Positioning System satellite network first came under development. Inertial navigators using digital computers also became common on civil and military aircraft.

Industry shipment values for the above products totaled $31.9 billion in 2001, an increase over 2000 levels of $29.9 billion. In 2001, the industry's employment base of 153,710 workers was an increase from the previous year's count of 145,990 workers. Capital investment, which totaled approximately $1 billion in 2000, has remained relatively constant since 1997.

Aircraft Engine Instruments

The main customers of the aircraft engine instruments segment are General Electric, United Technologies, Rolls Royce, and other aircraft manufacturers. The sector shipped measuring devices for temperature, pressure, vacuum, fuel and oil flow-rate sensors, and other measuring instruments. Growth in this market is linked to aircraft production.

Through the first decade of the 2000s, the Measuring and Controlling Devices Industry was projected to grow at an annual rate of 3 percent. Aircraft engine instruments are predicted to be one of this industry's faster growing segments. Furthermore, the addition of software and services will contribute to overall industry growth, as will further expansion into overseas markets. The top five export markets in the late 1990s were Canada, Mexico, Japan, United Kingdom, and Germany; these five countries were also the top import countries. Looking into the 2000s, estimates indicate that 33 percent of measuring and controlling instruments product shipments will be exported, while 25 percent of U.S. production will be imported.

Aviation Fuel

The term gasoline is commonly used in North America where it is often shortened in to gas. This should be distinguished in usage from truly gaseous fuels used in internal combustion engines such as liquefied petroleum (which is stored pressurized as a liquid but is allowed to return naturally to a gaseous state before combustion). Mogas, short for motor gasoline, separates automobile fuel from aviation gasoline, or avgas. In the United States, avgas is known as 100LL (100 octane, low lead) and is dyed blue.

Gasoline fuels, called white products in the petroleum industry, comprise the lighter end of the refining process, usually about 20 percent of the total yield. Most automobile gasoline produced in the 1930s had an octane reading of 40, with aviation gasoline at 75-80. Aviation gasoline with such high octane numbers could only be refined through a process of distillation of high-grade petroleum. By 1945 American aviation fuel was commonly 130 to 150 octane, where it has largely remained since.


In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. federal government ordered airlines to ensure that existing cockpit doors on commercial aircraft would be locked at all times and secured with extra bars and barriers. It also developed a standard redesigned, reinforced cockpit door that airlines were required to install on all aircraft by 2003.

With an annual research budget exceeding $1 billion for its aeronautical division, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) contributes substantially to advances in aircraft technology. NASA has assisted the general aviation industry in the United States in such areas as developing new wing and blade designs—including the civil tilt-rotor project—and cockpit technology for business and commuter aircraft.

The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change developed in 1997 was the first international treaty to set standards for greenhouse gas emissions—primarily carbon dioxide—by countries ratifying it. Although as of December 2006, the United States had yet to accept this treaty's limitations, NASA plans to develop aircraft that meet those environmental and safety standards.

Boeing is another leading aircraft technology researcher. Each year the company devotes between $1.5 billion and $1.8 billion for research and development. In the mid-1990s, the majority of the company's research funds went to developing its 777. In the first decade of the 2000s, with the delivery of its 777s, Boeing turned to refining its existing aircraft and designing new planes. In cooperation with NASA and several universities, Boeing began to develop a blended-wing-body (BWB) plane. The BWB's advantages include superior fuel economy, lower production costs, greater capacity, and greater range than the conventional aircraft of the 1990s. The BWB's capacity comes from the design of the wings, which hold seats for passengers. Researchers estimate that the plane could be ready by 2015. Meanwhile, Boeing plans to meet the fast-approaching requirements for environmentally friendly aircraft with its 717-200, which features reduced emissions and lower noise levels than its rivals. Test flights of the 717-200 began in early 1998.

In the mid-1990s, United States and Russian researchers jointly studied how to develop new supersonic civil aircraft. Although supersonic projects had largely ended in 1978, both countries renewed their interest. The U.S. component of the research team consisted of NASA, Boeing, Rockwell-Collins, Pratt & Whitney, and General Electric. The Russian component of the team included Tupolev, the developer of the Tu-144 supersonic jet. The collaborators went to work rebuilding the plane's engine to use the aircraft for studies of the ozone layer and sonic-boom problems.

In contrast to the huge government-sponsored research programs of the aerospace conglomerates, the research and development (R&D) efforts of the makers of ultralights and kit planes, designed to be assembled by the user, were lean but smart. The popular kit designs offered by Burt Rutan and others in the 1970s offered advanced materials such as exotic composites, plastic foams, and fiberglass and epoxy laminates. Also featured in these designs were canards, small wings placed at the nose of the aircraft, and winglets, fins at the end of the main wing, both of which increased efficiency and stability. Computer modeling enabled designers to incorporate advanced wing shapes into designs the ordinary enthusiast could build at home. At least one company has adopted these technologies to produce an inexpensive, six-passenger business turboprop (less than $1 million, compared to $3 million and up for competitors).

A significant experimental aircraft was the Gossamer Condor. In 1977, it enabled the first human-powered flight. Perhaps the greatest achievement in 1986 was Rutan's Voyager, the first aircraft to circle the world without refueling. By the early 2000s, Rutan's conceptions of lightweight craft with intercontinental range had found a military application in the U.S. armed forces—highly capable drones, used effectively during the hostilities in Afghanistan. High-altitude drones with extended range were also expected to acquire satellite-like global or regional communications roles in the new century. Rutan's designs and principles have found their civil application in the Beech Starship, a small business turboprop, and in a small jet fighter/trainer.

Instrumentation is another area of continuing research. A computerized display of flight information, the Electronic Flight Information System (EFIS), has promised to improve the decision-making abilities of pilots by providing an integrated, improved display of navigational, meteorological, and aircraft performance information in the cockpit. State-of-the-art airliners and business craft such as the Boeing 757 and 767, the Airbus A-310, and the Beech Starship are equipped with this system.

The Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system, first developed for use by the U.S. military in the early 1970s, relies on groupings of satellites to provide extremely precise location information (including altitude) to receiving units within airplanes—some small enough to be handheld and inexpensive enough to be used by the general aviation market. However, the units' small size and accuracy have caused concern about their potential misuse in armaments.


Civil aircraft production is controlled by the commercial market, supplying the jets and turboprops used by the world's passenger and cargo airlines. As of the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, just two manufacturers—Boeing in the United States and Airbus S.A.S. in France—have controlled nearly the entire market for commercial aircraft for more than a decade. This lead was secured by manufacturing medium and large jets for 100 or more passengers, the industry's most lucrative and capital-intensive segments. Aircraft manufacturers noted the increasing demand for large-capacity, wide-body planes and expected that the average number of seats per plane would increase to 240 by 2015. They expected Asian countries would help drive this trend with a 356-seat average capacity per plane by 2015. Airbus was set to deliver its 555 passenger A380 in 2008.

The huge costs and risks of aircraft manufacturing encouraged business consolidation and a proliferation of international joint ventures in what has been termed a borderless industry. Few countries could be considered self-sufficient in production, and even for those that could, most competitors in the industry pursue multiple cross-border ventures in order to keep costs down and draw on the special competencies and efficiencies of firms around the globe.

Globally, the industry experienced continued growth in the early 2000s. Boeing's World Air Cargo Forecast predicted an annual expansion rate of 6.2 percent through 2023, tripling the levels of overall air traffic. Strong growth was reported in international trade, with the most reported in the Asia-Pacific region. Traffic in North America and within Europe was expected to see below average increases. The U.S. firms Cessna Aircraft Co. and Raytheon led the continuing strong surge in sales in the general aviation segment. The U.S. industry reached $147 billion in 2003 sales. That year, Boeing, with about 280 units, and Airbus, with about 300 units, produced a combined $33 billion in aircraft. These had a per-unit value of $50 million or more, according to Fortune. For the first half of 2004, the companies delivered a combined 312 aircraft. According to researchers from the Teal Group, $421 billion in aircraft will be built by 2012.

Environmental groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia have focused on noise pollution. At the turn of the century, the U.S. Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 required U.S. airlines to make their fleets meet quieter noise specifications. Smaller business jets were exempt from this rule. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) imposed similar standards.

Heavily congested airports have suggested the need for 600-800 seat, ultra-high-capacity aircraft (UHCA), or very large commercial transport (VLCT). Airbus began research on such a project, estimated to cost between $6 billion and $8 billion. Boeing also began research for its proposed UHCA, the 747-X. The potential market for these aircraft was projected at between 400 and 500 aircraft by 2010. In the early 2000s, Boeing studied development of smaller capacity, but higher speed, transports than the proposed UHCAs.

A concept for a 300-seat supersonic airliner, dubbed the Orient Express, has been the subject of a study group comprised of engineers and others from Boeing, Aerospatiale, British Aerospace, Japan Aircraft Development Corp., Tupolev, and Alenia. Traveling at Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, the aircraft would cut travel time between Tokyo and Los Angeles to 4 hours, from the current 10. Fares were projected to fall eventually to a level just 20 percent higher than those for conventional flight.

Two types of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft also were being developed to serve inner-city airports. Ishida Corp. of Japan (in collaboration with U.K. and U.S. firms) is developing the 14-passenger TW-68. With wings that rotate 90 degrees, the craft would allow vertical takeoff and landing. Due to traffic congestion, Boeing projected a need for thousands of civil tilt-rotor aircraft (such as the Bell/Boeing V-22) in the first few decades of the new century.


The opportunity to fly for business and the right to fly to increase the exotic possibilities of vacations have led the aircraft industry to a simple, if perhaps immodest goal: to get everyone in the air at some point in life, and the more often the better. Beginning in the late 1990s, online travel agencies such as Orbitz,, Travelocity, and others, used highly complex algorithms to scan millions of possibilities for discount hotel rooms, car rentals, and of course air flight times and days that would, they universally claimed, provide the consumer with the absolute cheapest available services, accommodations, and travel.

However, these algorithms have been analyzed, with the mildly disturbing conclusion that thorough examination of all possible variables would take longer than the probable age of the known universe. The agencies ignore this massive fact by simply choosing what look to be the top few possibilities and presenting them in a few seconds on the monitor screen, begging for the user to reach for a credit card. Nevertheless, airlines contribute to this process partly because competition constantly increases and because, thanks to various technology and new ways of ordering data, flights from almost anywhere to almost anywhere else are increasingly possible. Distance is no longer the barrier it was as little as fifty years ago.

Those parents of the baby boomers who flew in or before the mid-twentieth century recall a different travel experience than post-9/11 airports offer: friends and relatives could walk you to the gate and welcome you there when you returned; you could smoke on planes and even bring your own drinks; and you dressed up as if for a business meeting; meals were served and they often tasted good. Ironically, it was the success and safety of air travel, plus lowered costs and quicker journey times, that led to lowering the presence of gentility in the flight experience.

On the other hand, despite delays, congestion, and sometimes embarrassingly intimate searches for the sake of security, most people who fly usually get where they intended to go in pretty much the time promised. It's cheaper than a train, quicker and safer than driving. Airlines work ceaselessly to ensure that, sooner or later, everyone will fly.


Air Mail Pioneers,

Aviation Safety Alliance,

Flying Apache Association,

International Aviation Women's Association,

National Gay Pilot's Association,

Order of Daedalians,

Royal Air Force Historical Society,

Swedish Aviation Historical Society,

United Flying Octogenarians,

World War I Aeroplanes, Inc.,


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see also Helicopters