There is no doubt aviation has come a long way since the first powered flights made in the early 1900s. But what are the key moments in this over a century of history? We take a look at some of the main events that have shaped aviation. There are many more of course that could be included here, these are just a selection of the most defining milestones.
The Wright brothers and the first flight – 1903
Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first aircraft (or flying machine) on December 17th, 1903 near Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. This was the first successful powered flight in history – even though it only flew for 12 seconds and covered 37 meters. By 1905, they had improved this and successfully flew for 24 miles.
This first flight was piloted by Orville – after winning a coin toss with his equally experienced brother. The two of them had experimented for several years to reach this – first with glider flights and later engines.
First scheduled air service – 1914
Another major step to take aviation closer to what it is today was the start of scheduled (and revenue earning) air services. In January 1914, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line started a service between St. Petersburg and Tampa across Tampa Bay in Florida. This was just a 20-minute flight, but a significant milestone nevertheless. The service only lasted four months but carried over 1,200 passengers across the bay using its Benoist Type XIV aircraft.
First transatlantic flight – 1919
Soon after the First World War, a prize was offered for the advancement of aviation to achieve the goal of long-distance flights from the US to the UK. The Daily Mail newspaper in London offered a £10,000 reward for the first successful flight “from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland and any point in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 continuous hours.”
After several other attempts, the prize and record were claimed by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown. They flew a modified Vickers bomber between Newfoundland and County Galway in Ireland in June 1919.
Charles Lindbergh famously followed this up in 1927 with the first solo flight across the Atlantic – flying between New York and Paris in the ‘Spirit of St Louis’ in 33 hours.
First round-the-world flight – 1924
Carrying on with distance and endurance efforts, the first complete around the world navigation took place in 1924. Eight US military aviators and four aircraft set off from Seattle on an East-West round the world attempt. Four of these men, and two aircraft, successfully completed the route via South East Asia and Europe in 175 days – flying over 26,000 miles.
The DC3 and expansion of air services
There are several significant events in the expansion of passenger services and aviation over the years. Perhaps one of the most important, though, was the development of the Douglas DC3.
Whilst this wasn’t the first airliner or passenger aircraft by any means, it was certainly one of the most successful. It is reported by the Smithsonian as the first truly profitable passenger aircraft. The DC3 first flew in 1935, and over 16,000 (including its variants) were produced.
Introduction of the jet aircraft
The introduction of civilian jet airliners in the 1950s revolutionized the aviation industry. The de Havilland Comet came first in 1952, operated first by BOAC between London and Johannesburg. This was a great step forward, but the aircraft suffered design and metal fatigue issues.
The Boeing 707 improved on this and was introduced in 1958. It soon became the first widely successful jet airliner.
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Pan American and the first 747 flight – 1970
Without a doubt, one of the most significant advances came with the introduction of the Boeing 747. This made its first commercial flight with Pan American World Airways in January 1970.
The 747 not only offered longer range, but also greater passenger comfort. The larger numbers of passengers it could carry changed the economics of flying, offering lower costs per seat.
Boeing has built over 1,500 747s, and it is the most successful widebody airliner to date. Production still continues but is well reduced, with competition from newer and more efficient aircraft. As of October 2019, the 747 remains in service with many airlines – with British Airways operating the largest fleet of 34 aircraft.
First flight of Concorde
Although sadly stalled in civilian aviation today, the development of civilian aircraft capable of supersonic travel was certainly a major advance. Two such aircraft were developed – the Russian Tupolev Tu-144 and the British / French-built Concorde.
Concorde saw service with British Airways and Air France, with the first fight in March 1969 – and in many ways revolutionized travel. The popular London to New York route took 3 hours 15 minutes (around five hours faster than today). This, of course, offered huge potential, but its progress was hindered by several factors – including operating expenses, ‘sonic boom’ issues and ultimately the devastating crash in Paris.
Introduction of fly by wire technology
Recent decades, of course, have seen many developments in aircraft – with changes and improvements in technology, passenger comfort and fuel efficiency. One of the most notable advances has been the introduction of fly-by-wire technology. Originally developed for military aviation, this replaces manual controls with electronics. This has brought weight saving and efficiency gains as well as safety advantages.
Fly-by-wire made its move to civilian aircraft in the 1980s, with Airbus trialing the technology with the A300, and later in production on the A320. Boeing adopted it too with the 777, although this retains full override options.
Development continues, with new possibilities including the use of optics and wireless technology. The Intelligent Flight Control System is a new development that takes fly-by-wire further by automatically compensating for damage or failure during flight. However, it is still in military and private development.
The next milestones?
Over 115 years since the Wright brother’s first flight, what’s next for aviation? There is certainly strong interest in more efficient aircraft, with reduced costs and carbon footprint – and this may well continue to lead new aircraft development. There is also – 50 years after Concorde first flew – talk of new supersonic travel developed by Virgin Atlantic backed Boom.
British Airways recently showcased some futuristic-looking possibilities for the next 100 years of aviation at a show at the Saatchi Gallery in London – take a look at our article for some of the highlights. Away from aircraft development, there are some great possible advances coming in passenger experiences, AI and even luggage and food.