National Aviation Day: A Look Back at Aviation through the Years


Photo: Library of Congress

August 19th is National Aviation Day, a day on which many of us involved in aviation reflect on the past, present and future of our industry. Since it's the past that got us to where we are today - an aviation industry focused on innovation and technology - this year on National Aviation Day, take time to consider how far the aviation industry has come. From the earliest balloons to the Boeing 747, and from the Wright Brothers to the F-35, here are a few aviation highlights that will take you back in time.

Early Flight
Birds and Balloons - Before airplanes, scientists were studying birds, balloons, and other flying contraptions. According to the Library of Congress, the first kite was invented as early as 1000 B.C. in China. The Chinese later used kites to measure distances and for reconnaissance. As kites and other flying wings were being developed during this time, Leonardo Da Vinci was studying the flight of birds and developing designs for flying machines. Balloons became popular in the 1700s, after the Montgolfier brothers powered the first balloon flights.

The First Fixed Wing Aircraft - Balloons were no match for Sir George Cayley, also known as the Father of the Aeroplane, who first noticed and recorded the four forces of flight. Cayley also design the first fixed-wing aircraft and was perhaps the first modern engineer, researching and recording the first theories about stability & control and wing dihedral.

Langley vs. Gustav Whitehead vs. the Wright Brothers - In the early 1900s, Samuel Langley was designing and building the first airplanes with a grant from the U.S. government. Langley was unsuccessful, and during the same time, the Wright brothers successfully made the first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Later, witnesses would claim the Gustav Whitehead had actually successfully completed the first manned flight in 1901, two years before the Wright brothers, but his flight are unrecognized due to lack of proof.

Going the Distance
The 1900s brought considerable advancements in aviation. With two world wars, competition was heavy, bringing many "firsts" in aviation and rapid progression.

Crossing the English Channel - 1909 brought the first crossing the English Channel by a heavier-than-air aircraft - a simple monoplane piloted by aviation pioneer Louis Bleriot.

US Airmail - In 1911, the U.S. started using aircraft for air mail. In 1911, the first U.S. airmail flight occurred. Many more would follow, and in 1914, with World War I about to being, The Benoist Company started the first scheduled passenger airline service between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida.

Crossing the Atlantic - In 1919, the infamous Vickers Vimy made the first nonstop Atlantic crossing while the military developed bombers and fighter aircraft. Charles Lindbergh completed the first flight solo nonstop Atlantic crossing in 1927, becoming an aviation legend.

Barnstomers
The post-World War I era brought a surplus of inexpensive aircraft - specifically the Curtis JN-4 "Jenny" - to the civilian world, and people started flying these airplanes around to give rides and performing air show type stunts. These "barnstormers" as they were named, operated out of fields and traveled frequently.

Modern Flight
Post- World War I and World War II brought even more advancements, like instrument flight, jet engines, supersonic flight and a trip to the moon!

First Instrument Flight-In 1929, Jimmy Doolittle took off, flew and landed without any outside references. Doolittle is also credited with discovering the visual and motion limitations involved with instrument flight, including the idea of trusting the instruments over bodily sensations.

Jet Engines, Supersonic Flight and Moon Landings - The 1930s brought us the first practical jet aircraft - the HE-178 Heinkel - and Chuck Yeager's legendary flight that broke the sound barrier for the first time. By the 1970s, Boeing was making the 747 and the first Concorde entered service, capable of supersonic flight from New York to London in just less than three hours - incredible by anyone's account. And do you think Sir George Cayley or the Wright brothers have ever imagined we'd land on the moon in 1969?

While the supersonic transport aircraft industry didn't take off, today's technology is amazing, nonetheless. With airliners like the A380, capable of transporting over 800 passengers, stealth technology found in the B-2 Bomber and now the F-35, composite materials and electric powered aircraft, the aviation industry continues to advance in fascinating ways.

This year on National Aviation Day, what part of aviation history will you remember and celebrate?