2 History of Aircraft & Aviation


The roots of aviation and aeronautical engineering can be traced back many centuries. However, only in the last century has humankind turned the dream of flight into a practical reality. Today, most people think nothing about getting on an airliner and flying at nearly the speed of sound for thousands of miles, perhaps even halfway around the planet in one flight. Nevertheless, getting to this point has required many innovative engineering solutions to overcome the challenges of building human-carrying vehicles suitable for efficient atmospheric flight.

Driving the continued development of new airplanes is a demand for safer and more efficient designs for both military and civil use. In addition, aeronautical engineering advancements have enabled larger and faster aircraft to carry more passengers and cargo or other payloads to longer distances. Military requirements also continue to challenge the state-of-the-art in aerospace technologies for improving the capabilities of occupied (piloted) and unoccupied aircraft, targeting, surveillance, offensive weapons delivery, and defensive systems.

Looking back at the evolution of flight, which occurred over several centuries, it becomes clear that the most significant advances in aviation can be correlated to critical technological advancements, perhaps even to what might be called leaps or “quantum jumps” in those technologies. These jumps include advances in understanding aerodynamics, stressed skin airframe design, lightweight and powerful engines, especially gas turbine engines, stronger and lighter materials made of composites, and, more recently, the use of computers and software engineering.

Of course, the preceding is by no means an exclusive list of advancements, with improvements in navigation systems such as GPS and collision avoidance, digital avionics, fly-by-wire flight controls, pilot training, and more stringent certification standards being intrinsically tied to all of the continuing and potentially future advances in aeronautics and aviation.

Learning Objectives

  • Appreciate more about the historical evolution of airplanes and other aircraft types.
  • Identify the key challenges of flight and subsequent technological advancements in the history of aeronautics.
  • Begin to think about where the continued advances in aeronautics and aviation might take humankind in another half-century.

Early Ideas of Flight

Some of the earliest ideas of human flight can be found in Greek mythology. Icarus and his father Daedalus, attempted to escape from the labyrinth of Crete by means of attaching wings to their arms, mimicking those of birds, which were constructed from feathers, threads, and beeswax. However, Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted his wings, and he fell into the sea and drowned. Nevertheless, according to the legend, Daedalus continued to fly and escaped successfully.

The ideas of mechanical flying machines can also be traced back to the Renaissance visionary Leonardo da Vinci, whose many notebooks (referred to as a codex) have been dated to the 15th century. To read his text (in Latin), it must be held up to a mirror and read backward, but even then, his unique writing style makes his words difficult to understand. Among da Vinci’s meticulously drawn sketches are flying machines and aeronautical contraptions, such as ornithopters with mechanically driven flapping wings to imitate the flight of birds, as shown in the image below. In his notebooks, he also shows an aerial screw device resembling a helicopter. In addition, Leonardo da Vinci thought about engine concepts, realizing humans could never produce enough power to achieve flight. However, he does not seem to have ever integrated his ideas of engines with his flying machine concepts.

Sketches of flying machines made by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century include various types of ornithopters.

Toys in the form of kites, gas-filled balloons, and rotating-wing tops (known today as a bamboo-copter) were being used in ancient China around 2000 BC, with later attempts at building giant human-carrying kites. However, the first recorded human-carrying flight vehicle capable of sustained flight was a hot-air balloon, a so-called lighter-than-air vehicle, which was designed and flown in France by the Montgolfier brothers around 1783.

A painting of a Montgolfier balloon, which flew in France at the end of the 18th century.

Benjamin Franklin, who had witnessed the balloon flights, was so impressed by their accomplishments that he predicted that balloons would soon have considerable military value for “conveying intelligence into, or out of, a besieged town, giving signals to distant places, or the like.” Indeed, balloons were to be used during the American Civil War for battlefield surveillance. Franklin later proposed lighter-than-air concepts combined with propulsion, which eventually led to the development of lighter-than-air aircraft or airships with rigid internal frames that became known as dirigibles. The word dirigible is usually associated with rigid-frame airships, the term originating from the French verb diriger (“to steer”).

The first dirigible was built and flown in 1852 by Henri Giffard and was driven by a propeller powered by a steam engine. Today, an airship is defined as any powered, steerable aircraft that is inflated with a lighter-than-air gas. Early airships and dirigibles were filled with hydrogen gas, which is highly reactive with many things, and airships had exploded even before the infamous Hindenburg disaster in 1937. A modern blimp, which is essentially a “pressure airship,” is a powered, steerable, lighter-than-air aircraft whose shape is maintained by the helium gas pressure inside the envelope. Unlike a dirigible, a blimp loses its shape when the internal gas pressure is lost. Newer versions of blimps now have a minimal internal structure made of carbon fiber, classifying them as semi-rigid airships.

Photograph of a model of the first dirigible, the 1852 steam-engine powered Giffard Airship.

Invention of the Airplane

The sudden “invention” of the airplane is a misnomer because the origins of airplanes can be traced back several centuries. History suggests that the airplane was an evolutionary consequence of the contributions of many individuals over a relatively long period. Before the nineteenth century, there were few scientific investigations of flight or into the science of aerodynamics. Indeed, the earliest work on the development of flying machines and airplanes can be placed into two distinct categories, namely inventive and scientific. The former is where intuition is used instead of formal technical training, whereas the latter is where a trained, more systematic approach is used. Before the twentieth century, nearly all developments in aviation were inventive, i.e., building something and trying to fly it, the outcome usually being a failure. Of course, one does not need to understand a complex engineering system such as an airplane to make it work at its most basic level. However, understanding the underlying science is necessary to make it successful and practical.

Humankind has always been inspired by nature, especially in the form of birds. Even well into the twentieth century, there were attempts to build flying machines that emulated flapping wings. This thinking manifested in all sorts of weird contraptions, many in the form of ornithopters, an example being shown in the photograph below, all of which were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the vast number of human-powered ornithopters, tower jumpers, and brave “bird-men” captured the public’s attention much more than any scientific endeavors. Today, with the advantage of hindsight, most would agree that such efforts with ornithopters and flapping wing contraptions only served to derail the acceptance of more scientific thinking on what elements were needed to build a successful flying machine.

Black and white image of a set of wings suspended in a wheeled tower.
In 1902, an Englishman, Edward Frost, constructed an ornithopter with wings made of willow wood, silk fabric, and feathers. With only human pedal-power it was not, unsurprisingly, able to fly.

The inherent mechanical, aerodynamic, and other complexities in building a human-carrying aircraft with adequate power and control capabilities that did not structurally fail and fold up during flight resisted many efforts until the beginning of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, there were several fundamental issues that needed to be overcome:

1. Understanding basic aerodynamics. The size of the wings and the power required to sustain flight were unknown to the earliest experimenters, who were guided more by intuition than science. While the science of aerodynamics, such as the force produced on a wing in a stream of air, had been explored by Isaac Newton and others, the first significant application of aerodynamic theory to airplane design was to occur in the 1920s. The earliest airplanes did not have large enough wings to fly, or the wings were just too big and heavy, or they were so fragile they broke.

2. The lack of a suitable engine. This issue was a problem to be overcome at the beginning of the twentieth century through the development of internal combustion (gasoline-powered) engines. Steam engines were never viable for any airplane, although attempts were still made to use them, often using a limited amount of superheated steam rather than carrying a boiler.

3. Designing a propeller. The ability to build a propeller suitable for aeronautical use was challenging. Early propellers often emulated those used on ships, which was not a good idea, even though the fundamental principles on which they work are the same. The best blade shapes for propellers that work efficiently in the air were found through a long evolutionary process.

4. Obtaining structural strength and stiffness while minimizing weight. Minimizing the empty structural weight so the machine could take off and fly with a pilot and even a small payload was difficult, even with relatively lightweight wood and fabric. Early internal combustion engines were made of cast iron and were very heavy relative to their power output. Aluminum was not available commercially until about 1890, and was not used as a construction material in aeronautical applications until about 1915.

5. Providing stability and adequate control. Early aircraft were unstable or marginally stable, and many crashes occurred even though the machines may have been structurally sound. It took many decades to understand the critical connection between the center of aerodynamic lift on the machine and its center of gravity as they both affected flight stability. Using effective control surfaces, especially for roll, took many years to develop.

At the beginning of the 19th century, George Cayley, an English nobleman and prolific scientist, proposed various aircraft concepts, including gliders, numerous types of airplanes, and even a primitive helicopter. His glider and airplane concepts used a primary wing for lift generation with smaller horizontal and vertical tail surfaces for directional stability and control. Cayley built many free-flying gliders at various scales, which he used to establish a basic understanding of aerodynamics and flight stability. He also coined the balance of four forces that influence aircraft flight, namely lift, weight, thrust, and drag, which later earned Cayley the title of the “Father of Aeronautics.”

Line sketches of various aircraft concepts with dates.
During the 19th century, George Cayley proposed various types of aircraft, including gliders, airplanes, and even a helicopter.

Cayley experimented with lifting wing models placed on the end of a whirling arm device and correctly concluded that the aerodynamic forces produced on his models were proportional to the squared value of the speed at which the model moved through the air. Cayley also recognized the need for a lightweight engine to power his aircraft. However, in the mid-19th century, only steam engines were available, which were utterly unsuitable for aeronautical use. Besides the heavy steam engine itself, it would have to carry along a boiler with ample water and fuel to make steam; this is impractical for an airplane because such an overall system would be enormously heavy.

In Germany, Otto Lilienthal developed several glider concepts, reportedly having conducted over a thousand flights by the beginning of the 20th century. Octave Chanute, a Frenchman living in the U.S., furthered Lilienthal’s work. Chanute helped others, including the Wright brothers, with advice on the design of flying machines and also wrote a book on his experiences, which is still available today. Chanute’s open approach to discussing developments in the evolving field of aviation ultimately led to considerable disharmony with the Wright brothers. The Wrights were very secretive about their work and quickly patented their ideas to protect them, eventually getting in a major “patent war” with others. However, it was to be the Wright brothers who were the first to achieve successful powered flight where others had previously failed.

First in Flight

In December 1903, the available historical record and the Smithsonian Institution documents that the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, were the first to fly a powered biplane aircraft that took off and landed under the control of its pilot, a photograph of the famous flight being shown below. Shortly before this, Samuel Langley had tried to fly an aircraft with tandem (fore and aft) monoplanes, but the wings folded up in flight and his machine crashed into the Potomac River. Aircraft structures must be strong and lightweight, but their limited stiffness means they can deform during flight under the action of the aerodynamic loads. Langley’s machine crashed because his monoplane’s wood and fabric wings were not stiff enough and broke off. The Wright brothers experimented with different types of structures and knew how to make a much more rigid structure in the form of a biplane.

Black and white photograph of a white biplane hovering over a beach. A man in black stands to the right.
First flight of the Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903, with Orville piloting the machine and brother Wilbur standing.

It is noteworthy that the Wright brothers built not only their airframe but the engine and propellers to power their aircraft, i.e., they understood how to integrate the essential components of an airplane and then make it work as a system. Also, they built a wind tunnel, which they used to make systematic measurements of the aerodynamic forces on wings of different shapes, including the critical effect of aspect ratio, i.e., the beneficial effects of the slenderness of the wing on aerodynamics. In this regard, they built their famous Flier with a wing aspect ratio that significantly exceeded anything else flown previously. Louis Breguet of France also made meticulous tests of airfoil shapes, paralleling those of the Wright brothers and reaching similar conclusions.

The Wright brothers continued to develop their aircraft designs for several years, and by 1908 their aircraft could fly for over two hours and cover nearly 100 miles. Nevertheless, there remain ongoing claims even today that Gustave Whitehead flew a powered aircraft several times between 1901 and 1902, pre-dating the first flights by the Wright brothers by over a year. Wilbur died in 1912, but Orville lived until 1948. Orville witnessed many milestones in aviation, including the invention of the jet engine but also saw the destruction caused by airplanes being used as weapons of war during WW1 and WW2. He said, “We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the Earth. But we were wrong. We underestimated man’s capacity to hate and to corrupt good means for an evil end.”

Of significance in the history of aeronautics and aviation is that the Wright’s systematic engineering approach led to their continued success rather than the more inventive approach pursued by others trying to achieve powered flight. In Europe, Santos-Dumont developed several aircraft based on the Wright brothers’ successful concepts, making his own aircraft’s first public flight demonstrations in Paris in 1906.

Period 1910–1930

Several significant advances in aircraft development and aeronautical engineering occurred during and after WW1, and continued the developments in engine and propeller designs. Although monoplane wing designs were slowly starting to appear, the biplane design saw various improvements, including methods of strengthening the wings and airframe and reducing the drag of the structural bracing and wires. Early airframes, however, were still made primarily of wood and covered with doped cotton fabric, wood being a readily available, durable, and easily worked construction material. However, such a construction method is limited in that it becomes increasingly structurally inefficient and heavy for larger types of aircraft.

A black and white photograph of a biplane.
The SPAD S.XIII is an example of biplane used during WW1.

These early airplanes also used air-cooled rotary engines in which the crankshaft remained stationary, with the entire crankcase and its cylinders rotating with the propeller around the crankshaft. However, the rotary engine’s large rotating mass combined with the inertia of the propeller meant that it behaved like a giant gyroscope, causing various stability and control problems for the aircraft, e.g., the ability of the aircraft to turn only in one direction. These latter problems were mostly resolved with the use of radial engines and other types of piston engines, such as “in-line” and “V” forms.

To improve aircraft performance and maneuverability, methods of increasing aerodynamic lift and reducing drag became prime objectives for aeronautical engineers. By 1915 there was already significant interest in the monoplane wing, which offered airplane designers the potential of significant reductions in drag and airframe weight compared to the structurally braced biplanes and triplanes of this era. For example, the Junkers J-1, as shown below, was not only an early monoplane, but it also pioneered the use of metal airframe construction.

A black and white photograph of an monoplane with cross emblems on the wings and fuselage.
The Junkers J-1 of 1915 was an early monoplane design that a pioneered the use of metal construction for the wings.

The earliest monoplanes were unsophisticated, with unrefined wing sections and rectangular wing planforms. In the quest for improvements, engineering interest peaked toward better understanding the aerodynamic effects of airfoil and wing planform shapes. This led to systematic wind tunnel investigations to measure lift and drag, some of which had been initiated by the Wright brothers using a small wind tunnel and force balance of their own design.

However, the continuing lack of rigidity of the early monoplanes led to the aeroelastic problem of wing flutter in high-speed dives and severe wing bending in even the most benign maneuvers. If flutter occurs, it can result in catastrophic structural failure, and many accidents caused by wing and control surface flutter occurred during the 1920 and 1930s. These problems, however, were soon to be overcome with advances in understanding how to design stronger and stiffer aircraft structures, mainly by using aluminum instead of wood and fabric.

The end of WW1 saw aeronautical technology being focused increasingly toward civil air transportation goals, the first passenger-carrying aircraft being in the form of flying boats. In 1920, the American Curtiss NC-4 flying boat, which was powered by four 400 hp engines, became the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic, taking 16 days with many stops. Two weeks later, however, the first nonstop transatlantic flight, which took 15 hours, and 57 minutes, was made in a Vickers Vimy by Royal Air Force pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown.

A black and white photograph of a biplane with a white 4 painted on the fuselage.
The Curtiss NC-4 flying boat, built by the Curtiss Airplane and Motor Company, which was powered by four 400 hp radial engines and became a basis for a civil airplane design.

Charles Lindbergh made the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris on May 20–21, 1927, in the single-engine Spirit of St. Louis. The British were soon to follow the Americans, flying various civilianized versions of bombers, including the Vimy. The use of flying boats for civil aviation, many of them modified military aircraft, persisted into the 1950s, partly because of the lack of suitable airfields with refueling availability or those with long enough runways.

Period 1930–1950

There were many advances in aeronautical engineering leading up to and throughout WW2, including rapid engine technology developments. Concepts such as supercharging allowed for the development of high-powered piston engines, which led to dramatic improvements in overall aircraft performance, including much higher achievable flight speeds and flight at higher altitudes. By this time, most aircraft were of the more aerodynamic and structurally efficient monoplane type, the biplane all but being relegated to aeronautical history.

Further advances in metallurgy led to more powerful piston engines with improved power-to-weight ratios and better reliability. However, even then, early engines would run for only a few hundred flight hours, with valve and piston failures being common. Propeller technology also saw significant advancements in the 1920s, primarily in terms of propulsive efficiency. The use of lightweight construction materials such as aluminum also began to be introduced into aircraft designs, which allowed aeronautical engineers to develop stronger and stiffer airframe structures as well as lighter engines and better propellers. Today, high-strength and lightweight aluminum alloys are vital to the success of the aerospace industry. However, aluminum was not available commercially in the alloyed form needed for aircraft construction until the late 1920s.

As power requirements increased, the rotary engine soon reached its design limits, not least because of the adverse gyroscopic effects it produced. Rapid advances in metallurgy and designs with better cylinder cooling finally allowed higher-powered radial engines to be developed. Fuels, too, saw better formulations to increase power output. Early types of gasolines were explosive and caused many engine failures because of pre-ignition. The use of lead tetraethyl (Tetraethyl lead) in the fuel (thereby raising the so-called octane number) allowed for a more controlled burn of the fuel (this is called “conflagration”), allowing higher compression ratios to be used, so more power could be obtained, and the engines were also more reliable.

The Wright 225hp (168kW) J-5 (R790) Whirlwind radial engine, as shown in the photograph below, was first produced in 1925 and it is notable because it is considered to be one of the first reliable aircraft engines. Engines of that era would fail or need to be overhauled in less than 50 hours of operation. Nevertheless, the reliability of early aircraft piston engines remained relatively poor, and catastrophic in-flight failures were not uncommon.

A photograph of a radial engine on a black backdrop.
The Wright J-5 Whirlwind radial engine and its derivatives was first produced in 1925 and was one of the first reliable aircraft engines.

Propeller technology also saw more advancements during this period, including the development of variable pitch or constant speed propellers. These types of propellers allowed their aerodynamic propulsive efficiency to be maintained over a wide range of airspeeds. Combining high-powered, supercharged reciprocating engines with constant-speed propellers and increasingly aerodynamically and structurally efficient airframe designs led to many successful military aircraft, including fighters and bombers.

By the 1930s, the development of lightweight airframe structures in the form of stressed-skin monocoque and semi-monocoque designs contributed to rapid improvements in aircraft range and payload-carrying capability. A monocoque design refers to a shell-like stressed skin mainly unsupported by any internal structure. A semi-monocoque design contains internal structure including spars, ribs, stringers, etc., to prevent the thin skin from buckling, and this type is typical of most modern aircraft construction.

The all-metal Junkers Ju-52, a twin-engine German design, and the twin-engine powered American Boeing 247-D, were to define a new era of civil air transportation that saw improvements in flight safety and passenger comfort. The distinctive corrugated skin of the Ju-52 gave the structure much strength and resistance to buckling with relatively low overall airframe weight. Other airplane designs were soon to follow as civil aviation expanded and airlines demanded larger airplanes from aircraft manufacturers that could carry more passengers.

A black and white photograph of an airplane with three propellers and Aqui painted on the fuselage.
A Junkers Ju-52 with its distinctive corrugated stressed metal skin and the pronounced “double wing” trailing edge control surfaces.


United Airlines Boeing 247-D in flight.
The Boeing 247-D, in this photo in the livery of United Airlines, allowed 10 passengers to be carried at 180 mph for nearly 700 miles.

One of the most famous aircraft of the 1930s and 1940s was the Douglas DC-3, a twin-engined monoplane of all-metal, semi-monocoque stressed skin construction. It was a reliable and easy aircraft to maintain, and was to provide a quantum leap in civil air transport capabilities. The DC-3 had a good flight range, even with a full load of up to 32 passengers, and could also operate from short runways and grass fields. The military version, the C-47 Dakota, saw much use during WW2 as a transport.

Photograph of a silver airplane flying over a city.
The Douglas DC-3 could cruise at 207 mph (333 km/h) to a flight range of 1,500 mi (2,400 km) and was one of the most significant transport aircraft ever made.

The British Supermarine Spitfire was one of the most technologically advanced fighters of WW2, combining advances in lightweight all-aluminum stress-skin airframe design with a powerful supercharged engine. The distinctive elliptical wing planform of the Spitfire had relatively low thickness and gave good aerodynamic efficiency and low drag. However, the early Spitfires suffered from low roll rates and aeroelastic problems such as roll-reversal, which was associated with the low structural stiffness at the wing tip. While the shape of the wing meant that it took longer to build and was more expensive, the Spitfire was vital to the ultimate success of the Allies during WW2.

A photograph of an airplane with a propeller on the nose, and BOZD written on the fuselage.
The famous British Spitfire was made mostly of aluminum stressed-skin and had a distinctive elliptical wing planform.

After WW2, many further strides were made in aeronautical engineering, which led to the development of increasingly larger and faster aircraft that benefitted both military and civil aviation. Civilianized transport aircraft were initially developed from flying boats and WW2 bombers, but it was not long before multi-engine aircraft were being designed specifically to carry passengers over considerable distances.

Larger transport aircraft were quickly developed by U.S. manufacturers, e.g., the Douglas DC-4 through DC-7 series. These were followed by even more capable transport aircraft, such as the Lockheed Constellation and Super Constellation with its distinctive triple tail, which became one of the most successful airliners of the 1950s. It was powered by four 18-cylinder, 3,250 hp piston engines and could carry up to 95 passengers in pressurized comfort above most of the weather at a cruising speed of about 300 knots. The Constellation was also used extensively by the military.

A black and white photograph of a TWA airplane on the tarmac.
The Lockheed Constellation had a pressurized fuselage and allowed for non-stop, long-distance travel over several thousand miles.

The Development of Jet-Powered Aircraft

The first airplane to be powered by something other than a propeller was the Coanda-1910, designed by Henri Coanda. He referred to his propulsion system as a “turbo-propulseur.” But was only a form of ducted fan with a centrifugal blower driven through a shaft by a piston engine, the air exhausting into a duct and providing jet thrust. The aircraft reportedly took off, but it was underpowered and crashed.

Even in the early days of WW2, both German and British aeronautical engineers were concurrently (but independently) working on the turbojet engine, which provided pure jet thrust. This engine type soon led to new aircraft designs with revolutionary flight capabilities. In 1929, Frank Whittle began work on his series of centrifugal gas turbine designs, but for various reasons, his first practical jet engine was not produced until 1937.

It was the German Heinkel 178 that was to make the first flight of a jet-powered aircraft, which was in late 1939. This jet engine, which burned diesel fuel, was designed by Hans von Ohain, who in 1935 had filed for a patent on the concept. However, Frank Whittle had formally patented the jet engine in 1930, seven years before Ohain’s patent application. For this reason, Frank Whittle is generally recognized as the “Father of the Turbojet Engine.”

A sketch of a small airplane from behind to show the turbojet engine.
The Heinkel He 178 was the World’s first aircraft to fly using a turbojet engine for propulsion.

The first fully operational turbojet-powered aircraft was not introduced into service until 1944 in the form of the British Gloster Meteor and the German Messerschmitt Me 262. The first American turbojet-powered aircraft was the Lockheed P-80, which reached operational flight status toward the end of 1945, but it was quickly replaced by the swept-wing F-86 Sabre.

A photograph of a white airplane with stars on the fuselage and and turbo jet engines mounted under the bottom of the wingtips.
The first American turbo-jet powered aircraft was the Lockheed P-80 Shooting-Star.

The invention of the turbojet engine soon led to the development of the axial flow turboshaft engine, which was designed to drive a propeller rather than produce pure jet thrust from the engine exhaust. The better performance, smooth running, quietness, and reliability of turboprop engines soon rendered most piston-engine powered propeller airliners obsolete. The increased performance and range of turboprop “jet” airplanes allowed for transcontinental and transoceanic flight in pressurized cabins in the smoother air at higher flight altitudes.

In 1953, the four-engined British Vickers Viscount would inaugurate the world’s first turboprop-powered airline service. The Viscount was sold to many airlines worldwide and remained in operational service until the mid-1970s. In the U.S., the Lockheed Electra was a widely used medium-range 4-engine turboprop that saw airline service during the 1960s. However, the Electra model suffered two fatal crashes that were traced to a form of catastrophic wing flutter. The problem was identified as a pylon-whirl flutter instability, where a lack of structural stiffness in the engine mounts caused resonance with a torsional frequency of the wing. After the issues were fixed by stiffening the wings and engine mounts, the aircraft went on to be successful, but it was soon replaced on long-distance flights by newly developed jet aircraft such as the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8.

A black and white photograph of a PSA airplane with multiple propellers mounted on the wings.
The Lockheed Electra was the first turboprop “jet” airliner produced in the U.S. The military derivative, the P-3 Orion, is still in service today.

In early 1950, the turbojet-powered British de Havilland Comet inaugurated commercial jet aircraft transportation. This revolutionary aircraft was highly streamlined with a thin sweptback wing that contained four jet engines, allowing the airplane to cruise at high subsonic Mach numbers. However, the aircraft was soon to suffer a series of sudden and catastrophic crashes, and it was withdrawn from service. Eventually, aeronautical engineers traced the cause of the crashes to airframe failures and explosive decompression arising from metal fatigue originating at stress concentrations at window cutouts.

A black and white photograph of a large jet engine with square windows down the side and G-ALVG written on the fuselage.
The world’s first commercial jet aircraft, the de Havilland Comet. This is the prototype aircraft, which had the square windows that led to fatigue cracks in their corners.

Metal fatigue is the weakening of a metal caused by repeatedly applied cyclic loads, typical of those found in flight structures, resulting in the formation of cracks. The subsequent research and understanding of the metal fatigue problem led to significant improvements in the strength and durability of lightweight aluminum structures, in general. Despite the tragedy of the Comet crashes, which eventually resulted in another quantum leap forward in aviation technology, the redesigned Comet 4 saw airline and military service in various forms through the 1990s.

By 1958, the Boeing 707 airliner was introduced into airline service and was capable of making nonstop transcontinental and transatlantic flights. With its high aspect ratio swept wing, it could cruise at transonic airspeeds up to Mach numbers of about 0.75. The Boeing 707 and its various derivatives became one of the most successful commercial aircraft in aviation history.

A photograph of a jet engine airplane lifting off from the runway.
The Boeing 707 was powered by four turbo-fan engines, and was built in various versions from 1958 to 1979. The aircraft had a capacity from 140 to 219 passengers and a range up to 5,750 nautical miles.

Boeing followed the 707 with a successful series of airliners, including the Boeing 727, 737, 747 “Jumbo-jet”, 757, 767, 777, and the 787 “Dreamliner,” each new model making use of progressively more refined aerodynamic and structural designs, as well as using more powerful and efficient turbofan engines.

A photograph of a United jumbo-jet airplane flying on a blue sky background.
The Boeing 747 “Jumbo-jet,” in this case a later 747-400 model, was first flown in 1969. Its distinctive upper deck shape was to see some lengthening and other shape changes over the years to improve its performance.

The introduction of the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” has ushered in a new generation of airliners where a much larger fraction of the aircraft structure is made of composite materials. Such materials allow for reductions in airframe weight and so commensurate improvements in flight range and reductions in operational costs. One advantage of composites is the ability for engineers to tailor the structure’s design to give the needed strength but with a lighter overall construction. The elimination of many fasteners (e.g., rivets and bolts) with composite construction also reduces the empty weight of the aircraft and reduces the likelihood of structural fatigue cracks and the need for repair.

A photograph of an airplane mid-flight on a blue sky background. 787 ANA is written on the fuselage.
The 787 Dreamliner pioneered use of composite materials for a commercial aircraft as the primary material used for the airframe.

Airbus Industrie has also developed a long line of successful commercial aircraft, including the A300, A320 series, A330, A340, A350, and the giant double-deck A380. One of the latest in the series, the Airbus A350, also uses most composite materials to construct the airframe. It has shown significant improvements in overall performance and reductions in seat-mile costs that are commensurate with the Boeing 787.

A white jet engine airplane flying towards the upper left corner with a partially cloudy background. Emirates is written on the fuselage.
The Airbus A380 is a double-deck, wide-body, four-engine jet airliner and is the world’s largest passenger airliner. However, production ceased in 2020 after only 250 aircraft were built.

Helicopters & V/STOL

Helicopters are a form of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. They can take off and land from almost anywhere, and hover motionless in the air or fly in almost any direction at the pilot’s whim, a tremendously valuable capability. However, the development of helicopters, which is a form of rotorcraft, lagged airplanes by almost 30 years, the helicopter requiring a greater understanding of aeronautical technologies for its ultimate success.

Jacob Ellehammer of Denmark was one pioneer of the helicopter, his counter-rotating coaxial rotor machine being photographed in flight as early as 1913, as shown below. His machine made brief hops off the ground, but it could not fly forward or do anything useful. Paul Cornu and Louis Breguet of France also made notable attempts to build and fly helicopter contraptions between 1906 and 1909, but they were failures. Many other attempts were made to build and fly helicopters in the following two decades, but with limited success.

A black and white photograph showing a dual blade concept helicopter in silhouette.
One of the first helicopter concepts was designed by Jacob Ellehammer in Denmark in 1913.

The first successful rotating-wing or “rotorcraft” concept was not a helicopter but an autogiro with an unpowered rotor. Juan de la Cierva’s C-4 autogiro first flew in 1923, and many other of his autogiro designs were soon to follow. The autogiro could take off and land at very low airspeeds, but it could not hover, the aircraft requiring forward motion through the air for the rotor to self-rotate or autorotate. Nevertheless, the autogiro formed an engineering platform for the helicopter’s future development, including its means of flight control. However, it was not until the mid-1930s that helicopters became more successful. Not until the end of WW2 did they start to become a valuable part of the aviation spectrum for military and civil use.

A grainy black an white photograph of an aircraft lifting off with one large rotating propeller above the pilot.
Cierva’s C-4 autogiro was the first successful rotating-wing aircraft, but it could not hover because the rotor was unpowered.

Helicopters saw many advancements in performance and other capabilities during the 1940’s and 1950s. The first civil certified helicopters included the Bell-47, as shown in the photo below, the Bristol Sycamore, and the Sikorsky S-55. The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, which was introduced in the late 1970s, would become one of the world’s most successful military helicopters.

Photograph of a helicopter on a grey sky background. The helicopter has mostly visible framework and a clear bubble-style cockpit.
In 1948 the Bell-47 was first used by the U.S. military in the Korean War, but it was also the world’s first civil certified helicopter and was built in many thousands.

Sustained development in helicopter technology over the last half-century, has led to many other successful military and civil helicopter designs. Today, helicopters are increasingly made of advanced composite materials and also use various new aerospace technologies to improve their performance, reliability, and safety. The EH-101, as shown in the photograph below, is also notable in that it uses an active vibration suppression system to minimize the vibratory loads transmitted from the rotor to the fuselage.

A photograph of a large military helicopter flying over a rural area.
The EH-101 is an all weather, day and night, multi-role helicopter that is used in both tactical and strategic operational roles. It is also available as a civilian version.

Helicopters are low-speed aircraft with maximum flight speeds of only about 150 knots (173 mph, 278 km/h), which is a limitation caused, in part, by the aerodynamics of the rotor system. In addition, a helicopter is unique in that at higher forward flight airspeeds, the rotor begins to experience both compressibility effects and stall effects at the same time. In an attempt to overcome such inherent limitations, some helicopters have been fitted with auxiliary fixed wings or a separate propulsion system, which are called compound helicopters. These devices can allow them to fly faster but usually at the expense of carrying a less useful load. More recently, many uncrewed drones have been designed with quad-rotors allowing for vertical takeoff and landing. Although the quad-rotor concept is not new, having been pioneered by Oehmichen and DeBothezat, amongst others, as early as 1907.

Other types of aircraft with vertical and short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) capabilities that can fly faster than helicopters have always intrigued aerospace engineers. Many such V/STOL aircraft concepts have been designed over the decades. The so-called V/STOL Wheel of Misfortune, as shown below, catalogs the most prominent attempts to combine the vertical takeoff and landing capabilities possible with a helicopter and the high-speed forward flight capability of an airplane. The Wheel of Misfortune also reminds aeronautical engineers that designing a vertical flight aircraft is challenging and not to “reinvent the wheel” in that “lessons learned” is always a powerful tool to help in engineering design.


A wheel diagram of different types of aircraft.
The V/STOL Wheel was originally developed in the 1960s by McDonnell Aircraft. It has been updated over the years by Michael Hirschberg.

Of these numerous V/STOL aircraft types shown on the wheel that were built and tested, only three have been successful. Perhaps the best-known V/STOL aircraft is the McDonnell-Douglas AV-8B Harrier, which was developed from an original British Hawker-Siddeley design. In recent years, a version of the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter has been designed for V/STOL flight, which uses a powerful counter-rotating lift fan in the fuselage. Interestingly, the F-35 (originally the X-35) was the only X-plane to go into production.

Photograph of a grey airplane on a blue sky background flying towards the lower left corner.
The F-35 is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole fighters. It has three versions: F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant,  F-35B short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant, and the F-35C for the Navy.

Hybrid rotorcraft such as the notorious Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey attempt to combine the vertical takeoff and hover capabilities of helicopters with the increased speed and flight efficiency offered by airplanes. However, such tiltrotor concepts are not as good as a helicopter for the things a helicopter does well (e.g., to hover or operate at low airspeeds) and not as good as an airplane for the things the airplane does well (e.g., flying faster over longer distances when carrying a larger payload). Nevertheless, the tiltrotor concept plays an integral part in the military aviation spectrum. It remains to be seen whether the tiltrotor can ever succeed in the civil marketplace, e.g., in the form of the Leonardo/AgustaWestland AW609, formerly the Bell/Agusta BA609.

A large light gray helicopter with multiple visible rotor blades.
The notorious Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey is a military tiltrotor designed to combine some of the functionality of a conventional helicopter with the longer-range, higher-speed cruise performance of a turboprop aircraft.

Supersonic Aircraft

The first American supersonic research aircraft was the Bell X-1, a rocket-powered aircraft capable of flying faster than the speed of sound or a Mach number of 1 (approximately 761 mph or 1,225 km/h) in level flight. It was the first of the X-planes a series of American experimental aircraft designated for in-flight testing of new aeronautical and space technologies. The X-planes were operated by the NACA and later by NASA in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force.

A black and white photograph of an aircraft with stars on the wing and fuselage. It has a distinctive pointed nose and visible afterburner diamonds behind the engine.
The Bell X-1 rocket-powered experimental aircraft was first piloted aircraft to fly just faster than Mach 1 in level flight.

With the introduction of the turbojet engine, new aircraft were designed to fly faster and higher. As a result, it was only a short time before new types of supersonic aircraft were developed. The invention of the afterburner, in which extra fuel is burned in the exhaust of a turbojet engine, gave significant increases in thrust and allowed such aircraft to accelerate through the “sound barrier.” However, the term sound barrier is a misnomer because there is no natural barrier to supersonic flight. It is simply a manifestation of what happened when early airplanes encountered the rapid growth in aerodynamic drag in the transonic flight regime that straddled subsonic and supersonic flight speeds.

A key feature of these supersonic aircraft designs is thin, highly swept, delta-shaped wing planforms and narrow, streamlined airframes, which allowed for efficient supersonic flight. However, a problem is the kinetic aerodynamic heating generated by skin friction at such high airspeeds. This effect raises the airframe’s temperature significantly causing it to expand, thereby requiring the careful design of the aircraft structure and the selection of the types of materials from which it is built.

Many types of supersonic aircraft have been developed over the last five decades. Still, nearly all have been used for research and military purposes, primarily as military interceptors and/or fighter aircraft. One of the most well-known is the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, which had a top speed over Mach 2.2. This supersonic airplane can carry many weapons, including air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and bombs. Shortly after it was introduced in 1959, the F-4 set many world records for speed and altitude.

Photograph of a military aircraft painted in a camo design, flying over farmland.
The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom was a tandem two-seat, twin-engine, all-weather, long-range supersonic interceptor and fighter-bomber.

There have been two civilian supersonic transport (SST) airliners built and flown in airline service, i.e., the Anglo-French Concorde and the Russian Tupolev Tu-144. Both were technically successful in achieving sustained supersonic flight with passengers but were economically unsuccessful and have now been retired from operational service. The Concorde cruised at over twice the speed of sound at Mach 2.04 (1,354 mph or 2,180 km/h), with seating for up to 128 passengers.

Photograph of a white aircraft flying towards the upper left on a blue sky background. British Airways is written on the fuselage.
First flown in 1969, Anglo-French Concorde with its distinctive double delta (ogee/ogival) shaped wings was in airline service from 1976 until 2003.

The economics of operating the Concorde was questionable even at the design stage. One reason is that it was too small to carry enough fare-paying passengers to generate much profit for the airlines. The aircraft’s high noise levels during takeoff and landing were also a significant concern when more stringent noise certification requirements were being imposed on other (subsonic) aircraft. Boeing, too, considered developing an SST, but it was not built after it was predicted that even with a larger aircraft carrying more passengers, the economics for airline use would be unviable.

Although higher operating costs and low demand from potential passengers have limited the success of supersonic transports, there has been renewed recent interest in building smaller supersonic business jets (SSBJ). While an SSBJ has yet to fly, one or more designs will likely fly by the end of the decade. The appeal of vastly reduced traveling time from a sustained flight at supersonic speeds remains intriguing to engineers and passengers alike.

A simulated photograph of a white airplane with swept back wings and a long nose flying over clouds.
An artist’s rendition of the QueSST X-59 supersonic jet under development by Lockheed Martin and NASA.

Besides developing the relevant aeronautical technologies to make an SSBJ possible and economically viable, a concern with all supersonic aircraft is the formation of “sonic booms.” Such sonic booms are the sound signature of the aircraft’s shock waves, which project from the aircraft to the ground. The sonic booms produced by a supersonic aircraft sound much like two explosions in quick succession; they are of sufficient intensity that supersonic flight over land is prohibited by civil certification authorities such as the FAA and EASA. The FAA’s regulations can be found in 14 CFR Part 91.817, which prohibits anyone from operating a civil aircraft in supersonic flight over land in the U.S. or from a distance offshore where a sonic boom could reach U.S. shores.

However, the problem of sonic booms may not be intractable, and with appropriate design of the shape of the supersonic aircraft is possible to lower the sound pressure or “soften” the noise. In 2017, NASA issued a request for proposals to develop its Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) low-boom flight demonstrator. This program called for the design and flight testing of a new X-plane to support future generations of SST aircraft. Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract, the goal being to fly the X-59 QueSST (“Quiet SuperSonic Technology”) in the 2022–24 timeframe. It remains to be seen, however, if this goal will be reached.

Regional Aircraft

Large, modern commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 are sophisticated technological achievements that, in no uncertain terms, are marvels of modern aeronautical engineering and exemplars of the field of engineering as a whole. In addition, the aircraft industry continues to develop smaller, more fuel-efficient airliners, such as regional jets, which fulfills an essential role in the short-haul marketplace, i.e., for flight distances of less than 1,000 miles.

These “mini-airliners,” such as the Bombardier CRJ and Embraer ERJ series of regional jets, now firmly dominate most short-haul civil aviation markets. They offer the airlines outstanding operational flexibility at a relatively low cost, albeit with some compromises in passenger comfort. They can also operate out of smaller regional airports, providing passengers at many more cities with quick and relatively inexpensive connections to major airports so as to make longer-distance connections.

Photograph of a white and blue jet airplane flying to the right on hazy blue background. The plane has a lion painted on the tail and City Airline on the fuselage.
The Embraer ERJ family is a series of twin-engine regional jets, which includes the ERJ 135 (37 passengers), which is shown here in this photo, the ERJ 140 (44 passengers), and the ERJ 145 (50 passengers). These types of aircraft give an airline considerable flexibility for short-haul operations.

General Aviation

The general aviation (GA) area has seen many advancements since the days of the Piper J-3 Cub. The modern Cirrus SR22 has been the world’s best-selling GA airplane for many years. The SR22 is a low-wing monoplane made of composite materials with a fixed (non-retractable) tricycle landing gear. It is powered by a 310 hp (231 kW) piston engine, and with its smooth and streamlined airframe this airplane can cruise at over 200 kts (370 kph), even with its fixed landing gear.

Photograph of a small white airplane with a nose propeller flying towards the camera on a hazy background.
The SR22 is currently the world’s best-selling general aviation airplane.

Electric propulsion systems are also seeing rapid developments, particularly for smaller GA airplanes, as shown in the photograph below. Besides the proliferation of electrically-powered Unoccupied Vehicles (UAVs), all-electric aircraft at many scales continue to intrigue aeronautical engineers, and it is likely that many advancements in this area will occur in the future.

A small white, blue, and gray airplane in a field with a mountain in the background.
The Velis Electro is an all-electric training aircraft and it was certificated in 2020.

However, the main technical challenges with electric propulsion include the development of battery technology for aeronautical use, mainly to overcome the limitations of their relatively low energy density, i.e., energy per unit weight. Batteries typically have an energy density about 20 times less than jet fuel, so they are currently ill-suited for larger aircraft. Nevertheless, forms of hybrid-electric power systems are likely to provide some advancements in the shorter term. In addition, alternative fuels to jet fuel and gasoline, such as ethanol and synthetic biofuels, are also being explored for use in tomorrow’s aircraft.

Summary & Closure

Over the last half-century, continued research and development by aeronautical engineers have led to many technological improvements in aerodynamics, engines and propulsion systems, lightweight composite materials, digital flight control systems, software engineering, and alternative fuels. However, reducing further an aircraft’s structural weight and substantially improving aerodynamic efficiency still remains key to reducing overall fuel consumption and operational costs. The future will likely see many further advancements that will take aviation to new safety, reliability, and efficiency levels. It is also likely that electric propulsion systems will see rapid developments in the next decade, particularly for smaller aircraft. Electric propulsion systems, particularly for smaller aircraft, are also expected to see significant advancements, driven by improvements in battery technology. The future of aeronautical engineering is promising, with continued innovation and advancements expected to take aviation to new levels of performance and sustainability.

5-Question Self-Assessment Quickquiz

For Further Thought or Discussion

  • What is a patent? Why might someone want to apply for a patent? Some people have argued that the process of patenting nearly every development in aviation technology at the beginning of the 20th century, including by the Wright brothers, hindered the advancement of aviation and aeronautical technology worldwide. Discuss this viewpoint.
  • While the success of aviation depended on the advancement of engine technology, it could be argued that the success was also because of the development of suitable fuels. Discuss this viewpoint.
  • Over the last century, aircraft have been made of wood and fabric, stressed-skin aluminum, and modern composites. Make a list or table highlighting the relative merits of each construction material, including factors such as material costs, tooling, manufacturing processes, fatigue resistance, durability, repairability, corrosion resistance, and crashworthiness.
  • Discuss some of the relative advantages of an electric-powered airplane, in general, and for long-distance travel, in particular.
  • Review how the development of GPS navigation and collision avoidance systems have led to improvements in flight safety.
  • Discuss how the introduction of digital “fly-by-wire” flight control systems on modern aircraft has led to reductions in pilot workload and improved flight safety. What is “care-free” handling, and why is this feature so important for a military fighter aircraft?
  • Discuss the considerations of introducing a tiltrotor concept into the civil marketplace. Do you think this is an aircraft that would be used by an airline?
  • Do some research on the internet to determine how NASA proposes advancing a new generation of SSTs. What are the main technological challenges? What are economic and other challenges?

Additional Resources

There are many online resources for you to explore aeronautical and aviation history, including information about all sorts of important historical aircraft.