|Volume: 01, Issue: 17||11/19/2003|
Relive the History of FlightIt would be entirely beyond the scope of this article to do justice to all the advancements, struggles, triumphs, and discoveries that have made the world of aviation what it is today. What follows can only be a brief primer on some of the more prominent milestones in human flight.
Before the Wright Brothers
While it may not be possible to determine when humans first desired to fly, it would be safe to assume that as long as birds could break the bounds of gravity, we have envied them. Almost every culture on the planet has a wondrous tale or two about some mythological hero achieving this lofty goal, whether it was Daedalus's waxy wings, Aladdin's djinn, or the wings Inca's legendary founder Auca grew on his back.
Centuries before the Wright brothers succeeded at Kitty Hawk, humans experimented with flight in one form or another. In ancient China, the art of the kite had been so perfected that by the time Marco Polo came around in the 1300s, kites were created that could carry people. In 1010, Benedictine monk Oliver of Malmesbury set a trend as he affixed man-made wings to his arms and jumped from Malmesbury Abbey. He is reported to stay afloat for 125 paces before breaking his legs in a fall. Over the years, many met their demise attempting to follow in his footsteps, though some were moderately successful. In the late 1400s, Leonardo DaVinci designed a glider based on his observations of bird wings but was unable to achieve flight with it.
Three hundred years later, the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated the lifting power of hot air to the king of France as they flew a rooster, duck, and sheep aboard their hot air balloon. This led the way for lighter-than-air craft such as the rigid airship built by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the late 1800s, which employed a light gas engine to control its direction—something that had previously been impractical.
In the late 18th century, Sir George Cayley identified the four forces involved in flight: thrust, lift, drag, and weight. While he never created a manned aircraft, he did invent the concept of the fixed-wing airplane and flew a working model of it. He laid the groundwork for Horatio Philips's designs of cambered airfoil wing, which led to experimental flights that barely hopped, but proved the importance to of the curved airfoil wing to heavier-than-air flight.
The Wright Brothers
On Dec. 17, 1903, two Ohio bicycle mechanics named Orville and Wilbur Wright set out from their camp on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to do what had never been done: pilot a human-carrying machine into the air on its own power.
Their first attempt that day, with Orville aboard, was airborne just 12 seconds and traveled 120 feet. Before the day ended, the brothers flew four times between them, the longest traveling 852 feet and lasting 59 seconds. That turned out to be the plane's final flight, as a gust of wind later that day damaged it irreparably.
Brief as they were, those first flights validated the Wrights' painstaking approach to invention. For four years, the brothers had reviewed reams of literature, sketched diagrams, calculated predictions, built and tested models, and made and remade the journey to Kitty Hawk in order to fly kites and gliders, the latter with them aboard. They experimented with some 200 wing shapes, and then distilled all of this knowledge into their 1903 Flyer, a fragile craft made largely of wood, canvas and wire.
As aviation technology advanced during World War II, the speed of the newer aircraft was increasing. This led to concern about how well the aircraft would operate under the shock waves that occurred when their speeds approach that of sound. Would both the plane and the pilot survive the stress caused by exceeding this natural speed limit? The X-1 program was born out of this concern.
Researchers and engineers on the X-1 program—a joint effort between Bell Aircraft Corporation, the United States Army Air Forces, and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would later become NASA—were especially interested in the effects of transonic speeds on the stability and control of aircraft. They created the XS-1, the first high-speed aircraft built purely for research and not for production. Over a dried-up Rogers Lake in California on Oct. 14, 1947, the XS-1 with USAF Captain Charles "Chuck" Yeager as pilot, was air launched at 21,000 feet. After a brief check of the four 6,000 lb. thrust rockets, Yeager throttled the plane up to 662 mph, which exceeded Mach 1, the speed of sound, at his altitude.
The research done on the X-1 program paved the way for many modern aircraft, perhaps the most noticeable being the Concorde, the world's only supersonic commercial airliner. After 27 years of service, this joint effort between France and Great Britain will make its final journey on Nov. 26, 2003.
The Human Space Flight
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin made one one 108-mintue loop around the planet in the Vostok 1 spacecraft travelling at 27,400 kph. The Russian cosmonaut beat Americans to the prize of being the first person in space. This event—combined with the launchings of Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, which carried a dog named Laika, the first Earthling in space—set-off a race to the heavens.
Twenty-one years before Yuri Gagrin's historic flight, on March 16, 1926, Dr. Robert H. Goddard successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket as a demonstration for the US Army. Goddard's 10-foot long rocket utilized gasoline and liquid oxygen for its flight. While his creation weighed only 4.5 kg, including fuel, and flew just over 12 meters in altitude, it utilized the same basic technology that would later allow the 6 million-pound Saturn V rocket to carry men 384,000 km to the moon.
The successful use of a liquid-fuel propulsion system was one of Goddard's many significant achievements. During his lifetime, he designed, built and launched thirty-five rockets of increasing sophistication. Goddard improved his sounding rockets' designs, developing turbo-pump systems; gyro-stabilization; aerodynamic and jet-deflector flight controls; automatic sequencing launch systems; flight trajectory tracking and recording devices; gimbal-mounted clustered rocket motors; and parachute recovery systems.
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