It has only been 119 years since the Wright brothers made their historic first flight, ushering in a new world of aviation. Aviation has come a long way since that 12-second flight; Now, you can hop on a flight from JFK to Singapore that covers an astounding 9,537 miles in over 18 hours and 50 minutes.
It took many successive technological advancements to get from 12 seconds of flight time to almost 19 hours. Here are a few we think are among the most important.
The Jet Engine
Early attempts that reflected the basic principle of jet propulsion harken as far back as 1st century Egypt and the workings of a turbine are first seen in the inventions of the water wheel and windmill. Still, it wasn’t until 1928 that RAF cadet Frank Whittle submitted the first feasible ideas for a turbojet.
Advancements brought the jet engine into the air during WWII but in limited amounts. By the 1950s, the jet engine was almost universal in military aircraft, and finally reached the efficiency required by commercial aircraft in the 1970s.
Jet engine systems now include airbreathing, turbine-power, turbojet, turbofan, and ram compression systems.
Jet engines became competitive for commercial use once the ability to use them at higher altitudes—where they are more efficient—became possible. The advent of cabin pressurization made it possible for planes to reach those altitudes without passengers and crew having to wear oxygen masks.
Imagine having to fly for over 18 hours wearing an oxygen mask. That wouldn’t be a popular flight.
While aviation was once dependent on aluminum, advances in materials have made planes lighter, faster, stronger, and non-corrosive. Carbon fiber is a significant contributor to aviation advancement due to its tremendous strength while still being a lightweight material.
Other composite materials used in airframe construction have allowed engineers to overcome challenges that couldn’t be met when materials were used individually.
Composites can be formed into whatever shape is needed, and the fibers can be tightly wound to increase their strength. Layers that run fibers in different directions can be added, further increasing strength and creating unique properties like a structure that bends in one direction and not the other.
As these low-weight materials have come into use, fuel efficiency has improved dramatically. The 787 Dreamliner weighs 20% less than it would without using composites, making it a top choice for airlines wanting excellent fuel efficiency.
Autopilot started as a way to alleviate the constant attention required of pilots traveling long distances and reduce fatigue. It was first developed in 1912 by Sperry Corporation as a basic way to fly straight and level on a course, significantly reducing pilot workload.
Over time, autopilot was continually improved to take on more functions to assist pilots, improve safety, and alleviate fatigue.
Modern autopilots vary from basic to ultra-advanced depending on the type of aircraft and the regulations for its flight. Planes with more than 20 seats are generally required to install an autopilot under international standards.
“More recently, Autoland has dramatically increased safety, keeping the aircraft centered on the runway and utilizing an Instrument Landing System (ILS) Cat IIIc approach for zero visibility landings,“ says Barry Oberholzer, aviation specialist and president of Black Widow Helicopters. “Since the early days of only controlling heading and altitude, autopilot can now assume complete control throughout every part of the flight, from take-off to landing.”
Global Positioning Systems
Most of us use GPS daily to navigate, track packages, or even access the restaurant reviews for the new diner we’re visiting. Still, GPS was initially designed for the aviation industry.
GPS started development as a military-only technology, with the first project beginning in 1973. The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978. By 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order allowing for the use of GPS in passenger aircraft once operational. Behind the push to expand the use of GPS in commercial aviation was the 1983 crash of Korean Airlines KAL007 after mistakenly entering Soviet Airspace.
Finally, in 1994, the FAA, or Federal Aviation Administration, had authorized the use of GPS on aircraft. bringing pilots out of the dark ages with little navigation information to having everything on a screen in front of them. More precise knowledge of the plane’s position has greatly improved safety and resulted in greater fuel efficiency.
The Black Box
Considering its function, most might not consider the black box an aviation advancement. Still, the addition of the box in the 1950s has helped investigators learn the causes of crashes, which can then be applied to other aircraft to prevent a repeating incident. Knowing what happened, the conditions that it happened under, and knowing the pilot’s response have had repercussions across aircraft design and pilot training.
Comprising both a cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, everything from non-verbal sounds like engines and switches to altitude, fuel level, cabin pressure, direction, and the pilots’ every action, guide investigators in their analysis.
Black boxes aren’t actually black; they’re orange so they can be spotted easily and emit a beacon signal for up to 30 days. They withstand impacts of up to 3400 G’s (a car accident at 30 mph is 30 G’s), survive up to 3.7 miles underwater, and bear as much as 2.25 tons of pressure for over five minutes.
Everyone is safer because of the black box. These are but a few of the major advancements in aviation history. The list could be incredibly long if we tried to name them all. Even now, new technologies are being tested that will further transform flight and make it more accessible, greener, and faster.