While many people believe that the history of aviation began with Orville and Wilbur Wright, the fact is that flying dates back more than 2,200 years, beginning with the first man-made kite. These kites, like today’s UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), were used by the military to aid devise assault plans against their adversaries. The military discovered usage for hot air balloons at the turn of the second century. Surprisingly, when a lighted oil lamp from the balloon sailed overhead, the adversary had no idea what to make of it, which terrified them.
While there were several efforts at flying between the start of the second century and the first flight of Flyer 1, the bulk of them were unmanned and used lighter-than-air gases. On December 1, 1884, Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert of Paris, France, sailed their hydrogen balloon to a height of 1,800 feet and a distance of more than 22 miles.
Although many people in the late 1800s were awestruck by this trip, they had no idea it had only touched the surface of aviation.
The wingspan of Flyer 1 when it debuted was an amazing 12.3m (40ft, 4″). The plane’s length was 6.4m (21ft, 1″) and its height was 2.8m (9ft, 4″). Flyer 1’s empty weight was 274kg (605 lb), while its gross weight was 341kg (750 lb).
In order to obtain enough velocity to aid the launch, the Wright Brothers also designed a moveable track for Flyer 1. On December 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, Orville took Flyer 1 for a 12-second sustained flight after two tries. This was history’s first successful powered, piloted flight.
A Positive Future
Aviation has evolved from a company led by technicians and engineers to one run by accountants. We are no longer living in an era of astounding aeronautical feats. Supersonic flying fantasies have given way to several versions of subsonic jetliners initially conceived in the 1960s, made possible by remarkable but long-awaited new subsystems. The magnificent F-22, the pinnacle of decades of jet fighter concepts, is being replaced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane designed to perform all roles for all customers.
Nonetheless, this industry is one of the world’s healthiest. Following a temporary pause in 2010, aircraft deliveries resumed their decade-long upward trend in 2011 and 2012. While the outlook for defense in domestic markets is dwindling or leveling off, foreign markets remain robust.
Meanwhile, the civil market appears to be expanding more. While a few sub-segments and projects are underperforming, suppliers with varied program exposure continue to see top-line growth.
In the future, it is reasonable to assume that economics, rather than technology or performance, will drive the industry. On the one hand, the glory days of supersonic flight are over. Building 800 efficient single aisle jetliners per year, on the other hand, is far more profitable for everyone than building a total of 16 Concords at government cost.