History of Airplanes

The idea of flying has sparked the imagination of mankind for centuries or even millennia. The first man-made flying objects were not airplanes but kites; records of kite flying date back as early to 200 B.C. in China, and rudimentary hot air balloons were first designed about the same time. Leonardo da Vinci famously designed several aircraft in the fifteenth century, but never tried to construct or fly them.

All of the aircraft that were shown to work up to the eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries were lighter than air, a significant difference from the heavier-than-air aircraft that would be developed in the twentieth century. Important mechanisms that would later be used for propelling and controlling aircraft were developed during this period, even if the overall designs themselves were flawed and unsuccessful.

By the close of the nineteenth century, the idea of flying had captured the attention of the world, and multiple aviation pioneers built various aircraft that managed to become airborne, if even just for a second or two, predating the Wright Brothers' famous flight by up to 30 years. Multiple pioneers were working on both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air aircraft concurrently, using hundreds of imaginative designs with varying degrees of success. Gustave Whitehead, for example, reportedly flew his engine-powered, heavier-than-air design for a distance of 800 meters at 15 meters height as early as 1901 or 1902, preceding the Wright Brothers' famous flight at Kitty Hawk by more than two years. Other inventors also claimed to have achieved flight between 1900 and 1910. By the early twentieth century, advancements both in engine technology and the understanding of aerodynamics made powered, controllable flight possible.

The Wright Brothers began working with gliders and other unpowered flight methods around the turn of the century, and are widely recognized to have the first sustained, controlled, and powered flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft flown by a pilot, accomplishing this feat near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. By 1905, their airplane designs could be flown for upwards of 40 minutes or 30 miles in a single flight. The development of aircraft grew exponentially as a response to World War I, during which time aircraft were used for military flights, including both reconnaissance flights and the world's first fighter planes.

Development of the jet engine began in the 1930s, mainly in Germany and in England. Both countries would have working jet aircraft by the end of World War II. After the war, the aircraft industry turned towards the civilian market, considered the dawn of what would be known as the jet age. The first commercial jet airliners were put into service by the end of the 1940s. Regular jet service was available by the mid 1950s, ushering in the age of mass commercial air travel.

By the start of the 1960s, aircraft were no longer restricted to flights beginning and ending on land, as the first space flights became possible and the space race began. Russia's Sputnik 1, launched in 1957, started a new era of flight, culminating in the first manned moon landing in 1969.


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