The History of Aviation

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Since the Wright Brothers' first flight on December 17, 1903, advancements in aviation continue.

August 14, 2012

While many feel the history of aviation begins with Orville and Wilbur Wright, the truth is the history of aviation extends more than 2,200 years, starting with the first manmade kite. These kites, like UAVs (unmanned air vehicles) of today, found use by the military to help create attack plans against their enemies. At the turn of the second century, the military found use in the implementation of hot air balloons. Interestingly, when a lit oil lamp located within the balloon flew overhead, the enemy did not know what to make of it, frightening them.

While there were many attempts at flight between the turn of the second century and the first flight of Flyer 1, the majority of flights were unmanned, employing gases that were lighter than air. A perfect example occurred on December 1, 1884, when Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert from Paris, France, flew their hydrogen balloon to an altitude of 1,800 ft, covering a distance of more than 22 miles.

Although many people in the late 1800s were very impressed with this flight, little did they know, it had barely scratched the surface of aviation.

The Early Years
Orville (1871–1948) and Wilbur (1867–1912) Wright are widely known as the pioneers of aviation. The brothers spent more than two years testing the aerodynamics of gliders, leading to the direct creation of Flyer 1. During the design and build stage of Flyer 1, the selection of material was critical. With limited choices, the Wright Brothers decided on wood, from a giant spruce, as the material for the main structure. Next, was the need for a form of energy. Since the Wright Brothers could not find a suitable automobile engine for use, they asked their employee, Charlie Taylor, to design and build a new engine from scratch. Taylor designed a 12hp, horizontal four-cylinder engine. Primarily made from aluminum, the engine included a sprocket-and-chain transmission system to operate two pusher propellers.

When Flyer 1 made its debut, the wingspan was an impressive 12.3m (40ft, 4"). The length of the plane measured 6.4m (21ft, 1") and its height measured 2.8m (9ft, 4"). While the empty weight of Flyer 1 amounted to 274kg (605 lb), the gross weight totaled 341kg (750 lb).

The Wright Brothers also built a movable track for Flyer 1 in order to gain enough airspeed to help the launch. After two attempts, Orville took Flyer 1 for a 12-second, sustained flight on December 17, 1903 near Kill Devil Hills, NC. This was the first successful, powered, piloted flight in history.

Left: Orville Wright flying the Wright Model A Flyer over a crowd of spectators waving their hats at Tempelhof Field, Germany, in 1909. Photo: Wright State University Special Collections and Archives.
Center: The IMTS Balloon outside McCormick Center, Chicago, IL.
Right: The K-MAX in a training operation, operated via remote control.

U.S. Military

By late 1907, the U.S. Army showed renewed interest in the Wright Brothers. Rather than directly offering them a contract, the Board of Ordnance and Fortification and the U.S. Army Signal Corps announced a call-for-bids to construct an airplane. However, the design and performance specifications were such that the Wrights were the only viable bidder.

On July 30, 1909, the U.S. Government bought its first airplane, a Wright Brothers biplane. The airplane sold for $25,000 plus a bonus of $5,000 because it exceeded 40mph.

On March 31, 1911, Congress first appropriated $125,000 for military aviation. The U.S. Army Signal Corps immediately ordered five new airplanes. Two of these – a Curtiss Type IV Model D Military and a Wright Model B – arrived at Fort Sam Houston on April 27, 1911.

At the beginning of World War I, the United States did not produce any aircraft of its own design. Most wartime production revolved around the building of training aircraft. However, it is interesting to note that during peak production in 1918, the U.S. aircraft industry employed more than 200,000 people.

Today, there are nearly 60 different types of aircraft flown by the U.S. Air Force, 25 by the U.S. Army, 18 by the U.S. Marine Corp., and more than 40 by the U.S. Navy – 11 of which are UAVs. Presently, plans for the F-35 to replace some engineering marvels such as the F-16, A-10, F/A-18, and AV-8B. However, to keep development, production, and operating costs down, a common design in three variants share 80% of the components. The United States intends to buy 2,443 aircraft to provide the bulk of its tactical airpower for the armed forces during the coming decades. The United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Canada, The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Turkey, Israel, and Japan are part of the development program and intend to equip their air services with the F-35.

In 2001, Lockheed Martin projected a potential market of 5,179 aircraft, including exports beyond the partnering countries. Today, the projection appears to be closer to 3,500. As recent as May 2012, the projected cost of an F-35 is $161 million.

The First Family of Aviation

"For some time, I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I fear that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money, if not my life."

When my Uncle Will wrote these powerful words to a friend in 1901, he and his brother, Orville Wright, were already stricken with curiosity... was it possible for man to fly?

Almost immediately, these two young printers, bicycle mechanics, and yes, brilliant self-taught engineers, were on the road to answering that question for humanity, once in for all. What other young scientists saw as a single problem to unlock the secrets of manned powered flight, however, was in Wright thinking more of a series of problems, requiring dedicated research to find many isolated and related solutions. For instance, Uncle Orville and Uncle Wilbur understood early on that a flying machine required control on three axis of balance in the air.

And, while the Wright Brothers' product was heavier than air, man carrying, controllable flying machine, their most important gift to the world may have been the carefully calculated processes they used to build the foundation of early aeronautical principles. As to the Wright Brothers' affliction, their disease, fortunately, it infected all of us and changed our global perspective of what was humanly possible for... forever.

~ Amanda Wright Lane, great grandniece
of Wilbur and Orville Wright

Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) Wrights' first sustained flight was on Dec. 17, 1903 near Kill Devil Hills, NC.


Commercial Aviation
The first scheduled U.S. commercial airline flight was January 1, 1914 for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. The 23-minute flight traveled between St. Petersburg, FL, and Tampa, FL, passing some 50ft above Tampa Bay. As the only airline to fly international prior to 1940, Pan American World Airways Inc.’s (Pan Am) first flight took off on October 19, 1927, from Key West, FL, to Havana, Cuba, in a hired Fairchild FC-2 floatplane. The return flight from Havana to Key West was in a Pan Am Fokker F.VII, on October 29, 1927.

In the 1930s, with the introduction of the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-3, the U.S. airline industry was generally profitable, even during the Great Depression.

After decades of growth, the greatest development in commercial aviation came in the early 1970s when companies such as Boeing, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas started producing the jumbo jet.

Then Airbus began producing Europe's most commercially successful line of airliners. In addition to efficiencies in passenger capacity, payload, and range, Airbus developed modern electronic cockpits, enabling pilots to fly multiple models with minimal cross training.

Today, Airbus’ A380 double-deck, wide-body, four-engine jet airliner is the world's largest passenger airliner.

The A380's upper deck extends along the entire length of the fuselage, with a width equivalent to a wide-body aircraft. This allows an A380-800 cabin to have 5,145.1ft² of floor space; 49% more floor space than the next largest airliner. It provides seating for 525 people in a typical three-class configuration, or up to 853 people in all-economy class configuration. The A380-800 has a design range of 9,600 miles, sufficient to fly from New York to Hong Kong, at a cruising speed of Mach 0.85 (560mph at cruising altitude).

Beginning with the wood, wire, and fabric to build Flyer 1 all the way up to the CFRPs (carbon fiber reinforced plastics) in use today, materials lead the way in transforming aviation.

The Wright Brother’s initial use of wood directly related to its high strength to weight ratio. In order to improve the strength to weight ratio, the industry looked towards metal in 1915. Using a tubular structure with corrugated sheet iron, the Hugo Junker was the first metal aircraft built with fixed properties.

Although there was use of aluminum during construction of Flyer 1’s engine, aluminum grew to become a primary property of aircraft in the 1930s due to its costs and properties. As the thought of an all stainless steel plane was discussed in the 1930s, due to its excellent corrosion qualities, aluminum remained the choice because of its 66% weight savings compared to stainless steel, and the fact that stainless steel was susceptible to buckling.

In the early 1940s, Owens-Corning started manufacturing fiberglass for use in aircraft. Manufacturers would build the nose of the aircraft from fiberglass to house radar systems, allowing radio frequency transmission.

Studying titanium for several years prior to 1950s, as a replacement for stainless steel, engineers noted that titanium resisted corrosion as well as acids, in addition to providing high strength.

Identified as an excellent material for aircraft, titanium’s 40% weight savings, when compared to stainless steel, made the choice much more valuable.

Depending on the size of the aircraft, estimated weight savings for planes using titanium fluctuate between 400 lb and 4,000 lb per engine.

While titanium was a major improvement, the use of composites in aerospace started to gain acceptance in the late 1960s. Carbon fiber composites were first to gain acceptance, providing a tensile strength five times greater than steel. Shortly after, boron fiber composites came on the scene providing higher strength than carbon fiber composites. Production of the first aircraft with boron composites was the F-14 fighter jet.

In comparison, today, most aircraft builders look toward composites as a way to save weight, which saves fuel, leading to substantial cost savings.

For example, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, comprised of 50% composites (fuselage, wings, tail, doors, and interior), makes it 20% more fuel efficient than similarly sized airplanes.

A Teal Group 2012 market study estimates that UAV spending will nearly double during the next 10 years, growing from current worldwide expenditures of $6.6 billion, annually, to $11.4 billion, totaling more than $89 billion during the next 10 years.

The Future of Aerospace
In 2011, there were slightly more than 800 million commercial passengers. Expectations are for that number to grow to approximately 1.3 billion during the next 20 years. With this dramatic increase in air travel, Boeing officials project a worldwide market for nearly 34,000 new aircraft during the next 20 years, translating into a $4.5 trillion market through the year 2032.

Airbus currently has a backlog of nearly 4,400 aircraft. In order to help meet these demands, Airbus officials plan to increase its output rate to 42 aircraft per month beginning in Q4, 2012.

Airbus currently produces all A320 aircraft at their two assembly lines in Europe – Toulouse, France and Hamburg, Germany – complemented by an additional facility in China.

In order to meet demands, officials from Airbus recently announced plans to open its first U.S.-based production facility in Mobile, AL, where they will produce aircraft for the A320 family. Expectations are for assembly to begin in 2015, with production reaching 40 to 50 aircraft by 2018.

During Farnborough 2012, Bombardier Inc., Boeing Co., and Airbus, a unit of European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co., secured more than $14 billion in new orders. While this is great news for the manufacturing industry, it is also a boost for the aerospace industry with projections for an additional 460,000 commercial pilots and 601,000 new commercial airline maintenance technicians.

While the commercial sector expects to lead the manufacturing sector during the next 20 years, UAVs appear to be one of the prime areas of growth for defense and aerospace companies. A Teal Group 2012 market study estimates that UAV spending will nearly double during the next 10 years, growing from current worldwide UAV expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion, totaling more than $89 billion during the next 10 years. With worldwide militaries planning more than $1.5 trillion on the F-35 program during the next 20 years, and a proposed budget of $17.7 billion dollars a year through 2017 for NASA, it is quite evident that whether you are an OEM, or a Tier 3 supplier, the future of aviation is looking strong!

Expectations are for commercial airline passenger traffic to expand to nearly 1.3 billion passengers a year by 2032, up from the current 800 million.


A Positive Future
Aviation has transitioned from a business of technologists and engineers to a business run by accountants. We no longer live in an age of remarkable aeronautical achievements. Dreams of supersonic flight have given way to multiple iterations of subsonic jetliners first designed in the 1960s, enabled by impressive but long-awaited new subsystems. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane meant to be all roles for all customers, is replacing the remarkable F-22, the culmination of decades of jet fighter designs.

Still, this industry is one of the healthiest parts of the world economy. After a brief hiatus in 2010, aircraft deliveries in 2011 and 2012 resumed their decade-long growth trend. While the outlook for defense in home markets is shrinking or plateauing, export markets remain strong.

Meanwhile, the civil market looks set for additional growth. While a handful of sub-segments and programs remain weak, suppliers with diverse program exposure continue to enjoy top line growth.

For the future, it is a safe bet that economics will continue to drive the industry, rather than technology and performance. On the one hand, the glories of supersonic travel are behind us. On the other hand, building 800 efficient single aisle jetliners each year is much more lucrative for everyone than building a total of 16 Concords at government expense.

1903 - The Wright Brothers fly 852 ft on their first flight

1909 - Glenn L. Martin (Lockheed Martin) launches the maiden voyage of his first aircraft made of silk and bamboo

1912 - Martin perform first over ocean flight (34 miles)

1916 - William Boeing begins final assembly of the B & W seaplane in his Lake Union boathouse

1917 - Herb Munter flies the Model C, again, with its larger rudder and a new vertical stabilizer

1918 -The Boeing Airplane Co. starts delivering the Model C trainers to the Navy

1923 - Use of the Boeing-developed arc-welding process occurs for the first time

1937 - Douglas Aircraft Co. acquires the remaining 49% of the shares of its Northrop Corp

1937 - Amelia Earhart disappears somewhere in the South Pacific

1944 - The last Douglas-built aircraft leaves final assembly

1945 - The C-97 Stratofreighter sets a transcontinental record by flying 2,323 miles in 6 hours and 4 minutes, at an average speed of 383mph

1947 - Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier flying Bell X-1

1963 - The first flight of Hughes OH-6A Cayuse light observation helicopter

1967 - French, German, and British governments announce plans to build a European aircraft

1968 - The Model 500 becomes the Hughes Helicopters' first commercial turbine-powered helicopter

1969 - Apollo 11 makes the first successful moon landing

1969 - The A300B, the world's first twin-engine wide body jet, launches at the Paris Air Show

1973 - A300B3 makes first flight from Toulouse

1976 - The prototype Space Shuttle Enterprise rolls out

1977 - A modified Boeing 747 goes into service as a delivery vehicle for the Space Shuttle

1978 - Boeing begins production of 757 and 767

1980 - Airbus introduces the use of composite materials on secondary structures in a trial using an A300

1985 - The A310-300 is the first commercial airliner to feature drag reducing wingtip devices and composites in primary structures, with an all-composite fin

1987  -During the 1987 Paris Air Show, Airbus Industrie managers express interest in further developing the company's links with the U.S. aerospace industry.

1988 - The Boeing-built Condor unmanned aerial vehicle makes its first flight

1993 - An A340-200, dubbed the World Ranger, sets a series of records by flying around the world with only one stop

2004 - Airbus represents 52% of the world's aircraft

2008 - The first Boeing 787 rolls out of final assembly

2011 - Four round-trip daily flights between Hamburg and Frankfurt operate an A321, using 50% biofuel blend


~ Richard Aboulafia, Vice President, Analysis, Teal Group Corp.