How The Second World War Changed Aviation

As we remember the good men and women who have given their lives for our freedom, we take a look at the Second World War and how developments during this time have paved the way for modern aviation.

WWII planes
How did WWII inspire modern aviation? Photo: Ronnie McDonald via Wikimedia

When you go home, tell them of us and say: For your tomorrow, we gave our today. – John Maxwell Edmonds

During the second world war, aviation became a crucial weapon of modern warfare. From the Battle of Britain to dropping atomic bombs on Japan, much of WWII was fought in the skies. Investment in aircraft technology during this time drove the aviation industry in general forward in leaps and bounds, paving the way for the modern aircraft used in passenger operations today.

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The monoplane

The streamlined cantilevered monoplane design really came into its own during the second world war. Although some biplanes remained in service throughout the war, the design of new aircraft largely lent towards the clean, unbraced monoplane wing design.

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WWII plane
The monoplane became a go-to design. Photo: RAF via Wikimedia

Along with this, the use of lightweight metals such as aluminum alloys accelerated, as did the use of enclosed cockpits and variable pitch propellers. The empennage, or tail, became much more similar to those we’re used to seeing today, and aircraft began to use retractable landing gear and landing flaps, which are essential to modern aircraft.

Designed for WWII, the Spitfire was an incredible development for aviation. Small, light and maneuverable, this single seat fighter aircraft spearheaded developments in engine and aerodynamic technologies, much of which has gone on to influence passenger planes in the future.

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Spitfire
The Spitfire pushed aerodynamics to a new level. Photo: Dave S via Flickr

Jet engines

The first operational jet fighter in the world was the German Me 262. Capable of some 559 miles per hour, it went into service with the Luftwaffe in 1944. This new technology allowed planes to fly higher and faster than ever before, and paved the way for jet engine developments in passenger aircraft around the world.

Me 262
The Messerschmitt Me 262 was the first jet powered fighter aircraft. Photo: US Air Force

However, German and British engine technologies were developing quite differently. The Germans opted for the axial flow jet, where air passes continuously through the engine. The British, in contrast, worked on the development of the centrifugal compressor, where air is pushed outwards to compress it before being returned to the turbine.

Although the centrifugal compressor was more successful during the war, its requirement for a large face area made it unsuitable for widespread rollout due to the drag produced. As such, the German axial flow design is the one that has inspired practically all jet engines today.

Pressurization

The largest allied bomber of WWII was the B-29 Superfortress. Responsible for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, this aircraft also has a less dubious claim to fame. It was one of the first times pressurized cabins had been used, which protected crew from subzero temperatures when flying long-range bombing missions, and is something we all rely on today for long-distance, high altitude flying.

B-29 Superfortress
The B-29 Superfortress had a pressurized cabin so crew could move around without the restriction of oxygen masks. Photo: US Air Force

Although there had been some experimentation with pressurization prior to the second world war, it wasn’t until the demands of war really pushed the boundaries of technology that it came into its own. In 1943, the Lockheed Constellation became the first widespread airliner with a pressurized cabin, followed by aircraft like the DC-6 and DC-7, laying the path for the cabins we fly in today.

Radar

As well as developing technology used in aircraft themselves, the second world war also saw the widespread use of radar for the first time. Developed in the decade preceding the start of WWII, radar had the capability to detect approaching aircraft from miles away, allowing British fighters to intercept bombers before they arrived.

Radar
Radar technology was further developed during WWII. Photo: Saidman, RAF official photographer via Wikimedia

During WWII, this technology was further developed for use in aircraft themselves. This allowed RAF pilots to find their enemies, even when they could not be seen. Modern radar technology is a world away from these early interactions, but nevertheless an essential component in keeping flight safe in the skies.

Airfields

At the start of the war, there were very few airports that could support military operations. Throughout the war, aerodromes were rapidly constructed all over participating nations. Many of these became civil aviation bases after the war, heralding the move from flying boats for long haul operations to modern land planes.

WWII airport
Many of the airports developed for WWII became civil airports afterwards. Photo: US Air Force

Despite the devastating destruction and widespread loss of life incurred in WWII, many of the aviation technologies we take for granted today wouldn’t have happened (or would have happed much more slowly) otherwise. What else can you see in today’s modern aircraft that as inspired by WWII? Tell us in the comments.

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Nicholas

Usual misconceptions abut the jet engine. The Gloster Meteor entered actual service a few months before the 262. Its centrifigal engines were chosen because they were more reliable – Frank WHittle invented the turbojet and always planned to switch to axial flow once he had the time to develop it properly.

William

The first German engines, those by Heinkel-Hirth developed by von Ohain such as the HeS 3B were also radial/centrifugal, in fact they had a double reverse flow combustion chamber and a radial inflow turbine which von Ohain chose because of the self matching nature of the radial compressor and radial inflow turbine. The German air ministry however promoted axial compressor engines because of the problems they anticipated in integration of the engines with the airframe especially at high mach, rather correctly. The Early Meteor Mk.1 used Welland engines and the speed at around 440mph was no better than the Spitfire… Read more »

William

The cantilevered, unbraced, all metal monoplane was developed by Hugo Junkers in World War 1. Junkers wanted to develop all metal aircraft (which he did before Ww1) and he wanted them low drag monoplanes elegant without draggy external bracing. He investigated in a wind tunnel as to what would happen to drag and lift coefficients if he thickened the wing so that it was thick enough to support itself. He actually found that the maximum lift coefficient went up massively while the zero lift drag coefficient only went up slightly (which was easily compensated by the absence of bracing). What… Read more »