The Invention of the Airplane and the Rise of the Airplane Industry for Military and Civilian Purposes

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The Invention of the Airplane and the Rise of the Airplane Industry for Military and Civilian Purposes


The development of the airplane is a twentieth-century phenomenon. From the first powered aircraft to the creation of the supersonic transport, airplanes improved quickly. This was aided by the innovations of World War I and World War II. Demand for air travel led to the creation of an industry including aircraft construction companies, engine and equipment makers, as well as firms that built and operated airports. When military leaders recognized its value, the airplane became central to defense as well as in the strategy and tactics of wars.


Men have dreamed of being able to fly for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) drew pictures of machines that could fly. In 1782 the Montgolfier brothers invented a hot air balloon that floated over Paris for 25 minutes. The development of powered balloons, however, did not lead to practical aircraft. In the nineteenth century a glider did fly, and men tried to get airborne with steam and other engines. In 1896 a powered model airplane actually flew. Various configurations of wings and propellants were tried unsuccessfully, but the airplane was on the verge of being born.

Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright (1871-1948 and 1867-1912, respectively), bicycle makers from Dayton Ohio, worked out problems of how to control aircraft in the air. They built a biplane fitted with a 12-horsepower gasoline engine and took it to North Carolina. On December 17, 1903, with Orville at the controls, the plane flew for 12 seconds and traveled 120 feet (36.5 m). Four men and a boy witnessed this flight, and one took a picture. A few newspapers mentioned the event, but little attention was paid to the airplane for five years, because at the time they were still impractical. When World War I began in 1914, the design, capability, and production of airplanes advanced rapidly. Manufacturers built airplanes in England, France, and Germany. The United States, however, had only 110 airplanes available when it entered the war in 1917. To rectify this deficiency, airplane manufacturers cooperated with automakers to produce 15,000 additional planes by the end of the war in 1918. Two aircraft companies, established in time to make planes for the war, became leading aircraft producers. Boeing in Seattle, Washington, and Lockheed in Santa Barbara, California, are both still in business.

After the war, advances continued at a rapid pace. By 1920 airlines were carrying passengers across the United States as well as Europe. The U.S. government used airplanes to speed up delivery of the mail. In 1924 beacons were established at airports, and night flying became feasible. By then, passenger airlines were operating in South America, Africa, and Australia. KLM, Lufthansa, and Qantas were early airlines that are still in operation today.

Europeans led in building airplanes as well as in running airlines. DeHaviland and Vickers built planes in England in the 1920s, and in France several companies arose in the 1930s. In Germany, banned from manufacturing military aircraft by the peace treaty at the end of World War I, Messerschmitt, Heinkel, Fokker, and Junkers created an aviation industry. They also built military aircraft in secret after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Japan also built military aircraft in the 1930s. Their biggest company was Mitsubishi, which produced the Zero, a famous World War II fighter plane.

In the United States several more aircraft companies were established. Donald Douglas located a company in Santa Monica, California, and Consolidated Aircraft in Rhode Island took over the designs of the company the Wright brothers had begun in New York in 1909.

During this period air transportation was becoming safer, and by 1935 four U.S. airlines were operating: American, Eastern, United, and TWA. Other airlines, like Northwest, Delta, and Braniff, established regional and restricted schedules. Pan American Airlines was the only American international airline at the time, flying to Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific.

To accommodate more passengers and make longer trips without refueling, larger planes were needed. To this end, Boeing produced the two-engine Boeing 247, Lockheed built the single engine Vega, and Ford Motor Company built the Trimotor, all of which were successful planes. Douglas Aircraft created a twin-engine transport, the Douglas DC-3, which became the most widely used plane in the world. In fact, some are still flying today.

In the mid-1930s several companies produced flying boats, or seaplanes. These four-engine planes, designed to land and take off from the water, could cross oceans and sustain long flights. Engine makers kept up with this rapid growth. One of the most widely used engines was the Pratt and Whitney, manufactured by several companies. Allison also made a popular airplane engine. By 1938 there were more than three and a half million passengers flying around the world, half of them traveling on U.S. airlines.

When World War II began in 1939, air travel was severely restricted. After December 7, 1941, when the United States entered the war, 40 companies began producing aircraft for the United States and its allies. Production of American bombers, transports, and fighters reached 100,000 a year by 1944. Without doubt the airplane was a crucial element for all parties during World War II.

A new propulsion system was on the horizon that would make these planes obsolete and lead the aircraft industry into the twenty-first century. Though jet propulsion was understood for centuries, the Germans were first to put it in an airplane in 1939. Jet engines became the engine of choice in the last half of the twentieth century and would become the engine that enabled airplanes to break the sound barrier and fly supersonically.


The impact of the airplane and the airline industry on the people of the world has been enormous and rapid. From its first successful flight to its ability to fly faster than the speed of sound, the airplane has made the world accessible to everyone. Speaking only of the United States, in its early years the airplane became a tool that brought this huge country together. By the end of the first half of the century, it was a preferred method of travel and was affordable for ordinary people. The availability of pilots trained during the war helped the build-up of airline operations after the war and aided the manufacture of airplanes. Airports and support services also blossomed, and travel became easier, safer, and more accessible. A major impact of airplanes on modern life is the speed of delivery of mail. In addition, as communications advanced by the development of radios, airlines and airports quickly saw the value of fitting airplanes with radios for safety and convenience.

Government became interested and involved in air travel from the first. Regulations covering routes, airports, and flying over cities were common. An agency was established that regulated aircraft safety as well as one overseeing pilot licenses. In the United States the Civil Aeronautics Board, established in 1938, was responsible for the rates charged by the airlines, as well as their routes. Every state established its own agency to control airports, but from the earliest flights between cities in the United States, there were safety concerns. Control towers to oversee the takeoff and landing of airplanes were built in every airport. They have steadily improved to include systems to aid planes landing in bad weather and provide radio beacons to bring a plane into an airport accurately. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was established in 1958, combining the regulatory tasks of the CAA and local agencies.

As mentioned above, airplanes were a major tool for all parties during World War II. Able to deliver material and men quickly to a battle site, they also carried bombs to enemy cities. It was the aerial bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii that brought the United States into the war against Japan. Aerial activity greatly advanced the development of aircraft carriers, which became the major naval weapon of the Pacific theater of war. Aerial bombing of enemy cities was an important tactic in this war, and the nation that could supply huge numbers of bomber and fighter planes had an edge. The United States was the one nation that had the industrial might to overwhelm Germany and Japan and win the war. It also could also supply ample men and material without being touched itself from the air. The event that ended the war, the dropping of two atomic bombs that forced Japan to surrender, could not have been carried out in any vehicle but an airplane. In 1948 and 1949, in one of the first maneuvers of the Cold War, Russia attempted to cut off Berlin, then in the center of occupied Germany. United States airplanes foiled this attempt by sending a constant stream of food and supplies to Berlin by air. The Berlin airlift was a success and Berlin remained a western city in East Germany.

In the 1950s the United States took the flying units of all military services except the navy and combined them into a new unit called the Air Force. This is an indication of how important air operations had become. They were very necessary in the ensuing 40 years of Cold War with Russia. In the last half of the century, the airplane was the also the center of several extremely destructive trends. The terrorist high-jacking of airplanes, with terrorists holding the hostages in return for demands, became a way for small groups of terrorists to make a political statement. Because of it, the security of airports was increased and tightened. In the latter part of the twentieth century airplanes became the primary way to reach people involved in earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, typhoons, and floods. While the airplane has been beneficial in many ways and destructive in others, there is no denying its enormous impact on modern life.


Further Reading

Baker, David. Flight and Flying: A Chronology. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to theAstronauts. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Hall, Richard R. Rise of Fighter Aircraft: 1914-1918. Annapolis, MD: Nautical and Aviation Publishing Co. of America, 1984.

Kirk, Stephen. First in Flight: The Wright Brothers of NorthCarolina. Winston-Salem, NC: J.F. Blair, 1995.

Leary, William E., ed. The Airline Industry. New York: Facts on File, 1992.


Passenger air travel began shortly after the first flights, and the first airline began flying passengers on a schedule in 1914 with a scheduled flight (in a Benoist Flying Boat) from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Tampa, 18 miles away. Twenty-two years later, commercial air travel was to make another huge leap, this time crossing oceans, using more sophisticated flying boats.

This next step was taken in 1926 by Ralph O'Neill, who inaugurated flying boat service from New York to Buenos Aires, Argentina, via Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Havana, Cuba. O'Neill's airline was put out of business in 1930 by Juan Trippe and his Pan American Airlines. Trippe realized that air travel between continents could be highly profitable because of the time savings over ships. Over the next decade, Trippe commissioned the Pan Am Clippers, flying boats that carried up to 50 passengers across the Pacific Ocean to destinations in Asia in less than a week. These planes set a standard of luxury and romance that has never been equaled.

To make this route work, Trippe first had to have an airplane capable of making long journeys over water, and then he had to have places to land them. This involved designing new aircraft capable of flying 2,400 miles (3,862 km) safely and reliably over water, developing new navigation systems, and constructing facilities and hotels in Hawaii, Midway Island, Guam, Wake Island, and Manila. Service across the Atlantic followed a few years later, and the era of intercontinental air travel was born.


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The Invention of the Airplane and the Rise of the Airplane Industry for Military and Civilian Purposes

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