Flights into History and Their Effects on Technology, Politics, and Commerce

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Flights into History and Their Effects on Technology, Politics, and Commerce


Powered flight began early in the twentieth century. Following the first flight in 1903, airplane technology made rapid advances, leading to increasingly daring flights as aviators strove to be the first, the fastest, or to fly higher and farther than anyone else. Their daring not only gained widespread attention, making the aviators heroes, but they furthered the science of flight, making technological, scientific, and military advances.


Even in ancient Greece men dreamed of flying, as the legend of Icarus demonstrates, and they likely coveted the ability for far longer. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) sketched flying machines in his notebooks over 500 years ago, and over the centuries other scientists, inventors, and crackpots also tried to design flying machines. German inventor Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) had some success with gliders in the last part of the nineteenth century, and Samuel Langley (1834-1906) attempted powered flight for several years, but genuine success was earned by the Wright brothers in 1903.

Their first powered flight lasted only a few seconds and traveled a distance shorter than the length of a single wing on the Boeing 747. However, within months Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright had improved their airplane to the point where they could take a passenger aloft and, within a few years, they and others were routinely flying up to several miles at a time.

Following the Wright's first flight, there was continuous competition among aviators throughout America and Europe for aviation "firsts." In 1907 Paul Cornu (1881-1914) made the first helicopter flight; in 1913 Igor Sikorsky (1889-1972) built the first multiengine airplane; in 1914 the first scheduled airline began service in Tampa, Florida; in 1915 Fokker developed an effective airplane machine gun, introducing air warfare; in 1919 John Alcock (1882-1919) and Arthur Whitten-Brown (1886-1948) made the first nonstop transatlantic flight; in 1927 Charles Lindbergh (1901-1974) made the first solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean; in 1930 Frank Whittle (1907-1996) received patents for the jet engine; in 1932 Amelia Earhart (1898-1937) became the first woman to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic; in 1933 Wiley Post (1899-1935) completed the first solo trip around the world; in 1947 Chuck Yeager (1923- ) became the first person to maintain controlled supersonic flight; and in 1949 a U.S. Air Force plane made the first nonstop flight around the world. Interestingly, this list of firsts shows that during the airplane's first dozen years of existence most of its current major applications had already been discovered: exploration, military, and commercial. What remained was setting records, expanding roles, and improving technology.

To many, the 1920s and 1930s were aviation's golden age. Technology improved rapidly, so people were constantly flying higher, faster, farther, and to different places. In today's world, when jumbo jets routinely carry hundreds of passengers across the North Pole, it's hard to comprehend the excitement generated by Lindbergh's day-and-a-half flight across the Atlantic. It's equally hard to imagine a world in which places were not reachable by air. But this was the case in the early part of the twentieth century, and every first, every new altitude and speed record, every endurance and distance record was new and exciting.

In its first few decades, aviation was fraught with both peril and promise. Airplanes were risky, short-ranged, fragile machines with a very limited carrying capacity. They could, however, open the world to fast, relatively inexpensive transportation of people and goods if their risks could be reduced. The military realized their potential for gathering intelligence and, later, for destroying enemy matérial, while daredevils sought fame, notoriety, and records. Over the years, all saw their visions come to fruition, changing society irrevocably in the process. And, in large part, these milestones helped cement aviation in the public eye as a glamorous, important endeavor.


Aviation's first flights profoundly affected the technology of the times. In order, for example, to make the first flight, all of the engineering problems of making a powered aircraft had to be mastered. Further technological advances were needed for Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic in a single-seat craft, not the least of which was designing a plane that could make the crossing rapidly enough for a lone pilot to stay awake during the entire flight. Once developed, this advanced technology was available for all successive pilots and aircraft designers, adding to the rapid progress of aviation.

And aviation's progress was rapid. Consider: the first major innovation in ground transportation was the development of the chariot and other wheeled, horse-drawn conveyances. Two millennia later, the only real improvement was that two additional wheels and an enclosure had been added to form a coach. Similarly, water transportation had changed little from the development of sails until the invention of steam power, and even then the speed of water travel could be limited by wind. In aviation, however, fewer than 50 years took us from barely fluttering into the air to supersonic flight; another two decades took man to the moon.

The importance of aviation in modern military campaigns can scarcely be overstated. The reconnaissance potential for airborne observers was obvious long before powered flight; during the American Civil War observers were sent aloft in tethered balloons to note enemy positions and weaponry. These gave way to observers in primitive biplanes, then to modified bombers and fighters, and the U-2 and SR-71 of the past few decades. In addition, every improvement that made the airplane more valuable for civilian use could also be adapted for military advantage. Navigation gear that helped Lindbergh reach Europe made it possible for bombers to find their targets more reliably. The long-range engines and craft used by Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart helped aeronautical engineers design long-range B-17 and B-29 bombers. And, of course, any aircraft that carried civilian passengers and cargo could be used to ferry troops and matérial to the front. Of course, the converse was also true: innovations that made military planes more deadly almost inevitably found their way into civilian aircraft, making them faster, safer, and more efficient.

Aircraft technology has also changed the nature of warfare. In the Persian Gulf War, the Allied nations gained air supremacy almost immediately and then used it to pummel the Iraqi forces relentlessly, greatly shortening the ensuing ground war. (Almost a decade later in Kosovo a campaign was waged successfully using air power alone.) The movement of troops to the theater has also changed; most soldiers flew to the Persian Gulf, arriving in days rather than the weeks or months that troop ships would have required.

Aviation progress was frequently used by nations vying for political supremacy or advantage. There was, of course, the prestige of having the fastest, highest-flying aircraft; national pride in a citizen who accomplished an aviation first (e.g. transoceanic flight); and so forth. In addition to the status, however, was an implicit threat. A plane that could take its pilot to unheard-of altitudes would also be out of reach of enemy aircraft, giving some measure of air superiority for a time. Speed record holders had a similar advantage.

Using aircraft performance for political advantage is a trend that continues. During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet Union and the United States traded altitude and speed records regularly, each trying to show the other, and the world, that they had superior aircraft and, by extension, superior technology and military might. For nearly three decades the SR-71, the MiG-25, and other top-of-the-line aircraft tried to regain titles for their nations. During the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist East Europe, these competitions died away to some extent, but it is noteworthy that both nations (and others) continue to demonstrate their aircraft at international air shows.

Rapid long-distance air travel has also affected world politics: "shuttle diplomacy" would be impossible without it. Air travel also allows diplomats from distant nations to gather at the United Nations, in Paris, or anywhere else they decide to meet. This has made rapid response to diplomatic and military crises possible, helping to resolve them more quickly than before.

Commercial aviation is a major factor in modern economics. Commercial jet sales, for example, are important exports for the U.S., Great Britain, and France. Airmail, including the now-ubiquitous overnight delivery services, depends on aircraft, and traces its roots to the mail and freight delivery businesses launched in the first few decades of flight. Passenger air travel has increased steadily for the last 60 years. All of these are multibillion-dollar businesses that show every sign of continued growth for the foreseeable future.

To understand the importance of air transportation to the economy, consider how business relies on air travel and shipping. Most businesses require face-to-face meetings to work out contracts, solve problems, and so forth. This means that documents must be signed and exchanged, and goods or parts must be moved from factory to market. Before the advent of air travel, face-to-face meetings might take weeks because of the time needed for a train to cross the country, a ship to cross the ocean, or both. Shipping goods or parts was equally time-consuming, and even documents could only move at the speed of the fastest train or ship. In some cases, a piece of machinery or a product line could be out of commission for weeks while awaiting parts or a repairman. Today, however, it is possible to send any person, any document, and most goods anywhere in the world within one or two days. Because of this, equipment downtime is reduced, companies can maintain smaller inventories and require less warehouse space, and businesses in far-flung countries can become partners.

The evolution of powered flight also had another less direct, but still significant, effect on business. In showing that a feat was possible, aviation pioneers encouraged businessmen to make use of the possibilities that were now available. Businessmen wasted little time in capitalizing on the new capabilities, creating industries that rapidly became both important and lucrative. By showing that the technology and expertise existed, for example, to cross the English Channel by air, entrepreneurs began to think about alternate ways to move people and goods from place to place. When Rodgers crossed the U.S. by plane, by implication, vital goods and mail could be transported across the nation, too. Similarly, Alcock and Brown's nonstop flight across the Atlantic demonstrated that people, goods, and mail could also be sent from the Old World to the New in less time than a surface crossing required.

Pioneering flights and aviators also captured public attention. Lindbergh was a hero for years, as were Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, Howard Hughes (who was an avid aviator), and other famous pilots. Books, songs, movies, and artwork celebrated their accomplishments because they did something never before possible. Today, when we take safe, rapid, efficient transportation to virtually anywhere on earth for granted, it's hard to imagine a time when this was not so. By opening up the world, often at great personal risk, these aviators showed the world what was possible, not just technologically, but in human perseverance, daring, and will. By doing so, they became legends, remembered with admiration to this day. Brendan Gill, in Lindbergh Alone, wrote words that can be applied to virtually any aviation pioneer: "What Lindbergh was the first to do, by an act of superb intelligence and will, millions of us accomplish regularly with the expenditure of no more intelligence and will than is required to purchase a ticket and pack a bag. . . . His valor is hard to keep fresh in our minds when the most we are asked to face and outwit above the Atlantic is boredom."

But these flights and the industries they helped spawn have had more social influence than simply the admiration given to pioneering aviators. Commercial aviation has made cultural exchange possible on a scale never before envisioned. Even a short time in a major international airport brings in flights from all over the world, bringing people and cultures together that otherwise would never have had the chance to meet. The world is perhaps a more familiar place because of this contact. An unfortunate corollary, however, is that distant people and places are perhaps less exotic and less mysterious now; perhaps by making the world more accessible, some of the romance, novelty, and excitement have been lost as cultures merge and mingle.

Finally, the Wrights, Lindbergh, Earhart, and the other aviation pioneers helped establish several scientific benchmarks that have profoundly affected society. In a general sense, any advance in scientific knowledge gives us greater knowledge of how the world and universe work, and we gain a better appreciation of our place in nature. High-speed craft such as the X-1 and X-15 let us see the other side of the once-feared "sound barrier." This led to a better understanding of aerodynamics, shock waves, and fluid flow that have applications elsewhere. High-altitude flight has given us information about the atmosphere, helped us map the annual austral ozone hole, and given unique views of the earth at a fraction of the cost of lofting a satellite into orbit.

In summary, it's obvious that aviation pioneers made an indelible impression on virtually all aspects of society, including the economy, politics, science, and culture. When all is said and done, there can be no doubt that our world would be far different without the advances made possible by these early aviators, their flights, and their equipment.


Further Reading


Bryan, C.D.B. The National Air and Space Museum. Smithsonian Institution, 1979.

Combs, Harry. Kill Devil Hill. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

Earhart, Amelia. Last Flight. Crown Books, 1997 (originally published posthumously in 1937).

Rich, Doris. Amelia Earhart. Smithsonian Institution, 1989.


In the National Air and Space Museum's Hall of Air Transportation stands a somewhat diminutive biplane with a hand-carved wooden propeller. Originally designed as a torpedo plane for the U.S. Navy, it was modified to become the Douglas World Cruiser. On April 6, 1924, four of these craft were piloted into the air by some of the U.S. Army's best pilots in a quest to complete the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe. Two of these planes returned to Seattle on September 28 after 5 months and over 27,000 miles (43,452 km) of travel.

This journey was accomplished in aircraft considered appallingly primitive by today's standards. The cockpits were open with only a small windscreen for protection from the elements. The engine developed only 400 horsepower, less than some of today's automobiles, and giving the plane a ceiling of only 8,000 feet (2,438 m) and a low top speed. Each plane carried two people, who alternated flying on a daily basis. During their trip, the pilots not only flew the aircraft, but serviced, guarded, maintained, and repaired it as necessary. Landing in the Indochina jungle, one plane was towed upriver by natives in sampans for repair. A few months later, flying from Iceland to Greenland, the two remaining planes were separated and lost each other in the fog. The lead plane landed successfully, followed a half hour later by the second. Taking off the next day for Labrador, the fuel pump on one of the planes failed, forcing the crew to pump gasoline by hand. In spite of everything and against all predictions, the two planes landed in Seattle, completing their journey.