Through the Ages – Airplane Travel
lNot everyone can travel through time and place as effortlessly as Jess manages. To see the lay-man’s tool for such ventures, one need only look up. It’s a bird!— It’s a plane!— It’s—well, okay, yeah, it’s a plane.
Nowadays it is possible to step onto a plane, and step off on the opposite side of the planet. On a plane, even time travel is possible. Have you ever spent hours on a plane, only to arrive at the same time that you left? Why not turn back time, by flying across the international date line, to arrive the day before you left?
These tricks were not always possible. Just over 100 years ago, Orville Wright took man’s first flight, gliding his bicycle-inspired plane across a rather wimpy 100-yard stretch of air.
Although the Wright brothers are well known as the first men to fly, their efforts fell hundreds of years after the first steps were made in the direction of human flight. A fascination with the skies goes back as far as the history books can detail. In Greek theatre, elaborate contraptions were rigged in order to lift actors playing the roles of gods into the air. The biblical story of the tower of Babel details a village’s attempt to build stairs to bridge Earth to the heavens.
Perhaps the best-known early flight aficionado is the polymath Leonardo DaVinci (born 1452). The famed painter of the Mona Lisa was not just a visual artist, but also a composer, an architect, a biologist, an astronomer and an inventor. DaVinci sketched man-powered flying contraptions whose wings flapped as the pilot pedaled, and a predecessor to the modern airplane known as the “helical screw.” Although his aircraft designs were never tested and probably relied too heavily on human strength and coordination to actually fly, many of his concepts have crept their way into actual airplane mechanics.
George Cayley (1773-1857) is considered the father of aviation. An educated Englishman, Cayley poured energy into both engineering and politics. More than a century before the Wright brothers took flight, Cayley conceptualized the modern airplane, identifying the “drag vector” (the plain parallel to airflow) and the “lift vector” (the plain perpendicular to airflow.) Cayley studied lift-qualities using a wing on a whirling arm. In 1810, Cayley published three papers detailing his aeronautical research, where he showed that lift is created by a region of low air-pressure above a wing, and that this low pressure is efficiently created using a curved surface. This discovery was based upon the application of Bernoulli’s Principle.
Bernoulli discovered that the pressure of a fluid (liquid or gas) decreases as the speed of the fluid increases. This phenomenon is known as Bernoulli’s Principle. By creating wings with a flat bottom and a curved top, Cayley was able to manipulate the speed of airflow so that the airflow was faster above the wing than below. In other words, the air on the curved top of the wing would travel over more distance than air traveling along the flat bottom, in the same amount of time. The wing would be sucked up into this high-speed/low-pressure area, causing it to lift upward.
By 1849, George Cayley was able to fly a 10-year old boy several yards over a descending hill in a triplane glider.
The German engineer Otto Lilienthal designed 16 types of gliders based upon the shape of a bird’s wings. The ‘pilot’ of these un-powered gliders would direct his flight by manipulating the shape of his body as it dangled beneath the wings. Beginning in 1891, Lilienthal made over 1,000 successful glider flights. In 1896, Lilianthal designed a glider with flapping wings powered by a small compressed-gas motor. He was killed when his motor stalled mid-glide, causing him to crash and break his spine.
The famed Wright brothers added several innovations that led to their successful flight. Wilbur Wright designed the airplane propeller, a sort of twisted wing that applied the principles of air-pressure and lift, but directed the ‘lift’ horizontally rather than vertically. Wilbur also bent the tips of his wings in order to gain lateral control of the craft. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur stood on the ground with a stopwatch as his brother Orville flew 100 yards in 12 seconds. This is commonly understood to be the world’s first man-directed flight.
Commercial aviation was popularized by the mid-1930s as airlines began to compete with trains and ships, designing luxuriously spacious cabins, in whose comparison modern first-class seating pales. Panamerican Clippers, which flew to pacific harbors, popularized the notion of a boat in the sky.
In addition to making it possible for ordinary men to literally enter the heavens, the surge of air travel altered life on the ground. Travel could be accomplished ten times as quickly, making it a financial burden but no longer a stifling time commitment. People were more easily able to make drastic long-term relocations. The new global economy quickly took form as it became possible to rapidly ship goods around the world. In broad terms, social structures shifted from being town-oriented to being internationally focused.
The airplane became a political force to be reckoned with.
After propeller-driven planes played an important role in World War II, military Air Forces were officially established to compliment the land and sea forces. In addition to the offensive duties that remained as the Cold War escalated, such forces were allocated to peace efforts. In the fallout after WWII, parachuted supplies were dropped as aid to the isolated citizens of Berlin.
In October of 1947, Charles “Chuck” Yeager flew a (non-propeller-driven) research plane at a speed of 1,127 kilometers per hour (that’s about 700 miles/hour), breaking the sound barrier.
Fighter planes and airliners continued to be modified as the Cold War fuelled the Space Race, shifting the focus from inner-atmosphere air travel to the development of rockets, space shuttles, moon landers, and most recently, robotic explorers of our neighbor planet, Mars.
By now, airplanes are an every-day amenity, a rather overlooked miracle of modern technology. Our planes are guided with ease by computer navigation that nearly threatens to make a captain’s job obsolete.
It is difficult to imagine that the moon landing was planned with a slide rule rather than a calculator. It is more difficult, still, to imagine that only a century ago the skies had yet to be traveled, and that, until then, flight was little more than the vision of madmen, and the scribbles of an eccentric artist.
Join us soon for another Through the Ages