10. The Concorde
Hailed as the first commercial SuperSonic Transport, the SST ran primarily between Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle and New York’s JFK Airport from 1976 until its retirement in 2003. Although the airline was notable for performing trans-Atlantic flights in half the time of ordinary aircraft, the program was plagued with economic difficulties as well as frequent public objections due to noise pollution. A crash involving a Concorde in France in July 2000 only hastened the aircraft's demise.
9. Aerial Refueling
The first successful aerial refueling occurred in 1921, when a brave wing walker climbed from one plane to another while carrying a can of fuel, which he proceeded to pour into the second plane’s tank. This method obviously would be useless in modern military applications — and make no mistake, it was the military that originally proposed air-to-air refueling as a way to stretch a plane’s combat range. The first refueling using more traditional methods — extending a fuel hose from one plane to another — came in 1923, and by the end of the decade, the technique had been refined to the point where pilots were spending weeks in the air, with numerous refuelings, in an attempt to set new records. Further refinements in aerial refueling were required in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the introduction of jets, which burned through much more fuel and traveled at higher speeds. Today, modern aerial refueling gives several nations, most notably the United States and Great Britain, global reach with their air power.
8. Aircraft Carrier
Experimental landings and takeoffs from naval vessels where conducted as early as 1910. However, the first flat-top aircraft carrier was the British Navy’s HMS Argus, which was commissioned in 1918 and saw service all the way through World War II. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, aircraft carriers allowed the United States to stay in the game in the Pacific theater during World War II and ultimately turn the tide at the Battle of Midway. Today, aircraft carriers give commanders the option of a “floating air wing” that can be deployed worldwide.
Early experiments with vertical gyro-planes date back to work by the French brothers Louis and Jacques Breguet in 1906, yet the first practical rotor aircraft was Spaniard Juan de la Cierva’s C.4, introduced in 1923. The man you may remember from school as synonymous with helicopters, Igor Sikorsky, didn’t invent the helicopter, but the Russian-American was akin to the Henry Ford of the helicopter, introducing the mass production of them in the early 1940s. Helicopters were used in small numbers for observation in World War II, but played critical roles in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Modern helicopters are used in rescue, military, and urban transportation situations, where short-field takeoff is in demand and runway space is at a premium or non-existent.
6. Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier
One of the seminal dates in aviation history occurred on Oct. 14, 1947, when U.S. Air Force Capt. Charles “Chuck” Yeager became the first human to fly faster than the speed of sound. This was accomplished flying the Bell X-1 aircraft Mach 1.06 (700 mph) over the California-Nevada test range. One low-tech addition that allowed the pilot to maintain stability of the X-1 during supersonic flight was the addition of a fully moveable tail surface. Like Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, Yeager’s feat is more a milestone than a development that advanced aviation, yet it is notable nonetheless.
Manufactured by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, SpaceShipOne completed the first sub-orbital manned space flight by a private company in 2004. If it looks a little like a shuttlecock, that’s because the craft is designed to pitch over and free-fall back to Earth much in the same manner. But beyond being a publicity stunt, the advent of private spacecraft may herald the future of the privatization of space, at least in the realm of low Earth orbit travel by corporations such as Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Space X. SpaceShipOne’s successor, SpaceShipTwo is currently undergoing flight testing out of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and is scheduled to carry passengers paying $200,000 dollars a seat starting in 2012.
4. Boeing 747
One of the most familiar aircraft, the Boeing 747 was the first wide-body commercial aircraft ever produced. First flown by the now defunct Pan-Am World Airways, this two-tier aircraft can carry 416-524 passengers depending on configuration and held the capacity record in this regard for over 37 years. Over 1,400 have been built to date, and variants from luxury airliners, cargo aircraft and military command and control aircraft are still in production. But perhaps the two most famous variants of the 747 are the space shuttle carrier aircraft and the VC-25 versions that are designated as Air Force One to carry the President of the United States and other dignitaries.
3. Douglas DC-3
First introduced in 1936, the DC-3 and a later variant known as the C-47 or “super DC-3” popularized air travel in the United States. Many average citizens experienced commercial flight for the first time aboard a DC-3 in the 1940s and 1950s, as easier coast-to-coast air travel became possible. (These were also the first civilians to experience jet lag and the loss of luggage phenomenon.) Over 16,000 DC-3s were produced, varying from the classic 21-seat passenger version to the A/C-47 gunship that saw action in the Vietnam War. Incredibly, an estimated 400 still remained in service worldwide at the turn of the century.
Some of the biggest advances in aviation history had nothing to do with aircraft modifications, but were ancillary developments, such as paved runways and transponders. Radar is the best such example. First outlined by Nikola Tesla in 1917, radar enabled the British to track and prepare for Luftwaffe attacks and to turn the tide during the Battle of Britain. Modern radar also serves to keep the growing volume of air traffic, especially over crowded corridors such as the Northeastern United States and Europe “sorted out,” and gives pilots an all-weather flight capability. Our modern aviation system, which sees thousands of planes in the air during peak times, would be impossible without radar.
1. Jet Engine
The turbojet and turbofan engines revolutionized aerospace technology, allowing for higher speeds and altitudes than where possible with propeller-driven aircraft. Romanian Henri Coanda filed the first patent for jet propulsion, in 1910. Many years later, Coanda would spark controversy by claiming he’d made a jet-powered flight that same year. The British experimented with jet technology before the Germans introduced the world’s first jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262, near the end of World War II. The first jet aircraft to enter commercial service was the de Havilland Comet airliner, which began operations in 1952.
David Dickinson retired from the USAF in 2007 at the rank of E-7 Master Sergeant. He was an Aircraft Armament Systems Specialist for over 20 years, serving in the 1st Gulf War, South Korea, Somalia, and the global war on terror. He’s worked on F-16, F-15, and A-10 airframes, as well as AC-130H gunships with Special Ops and PA-200 Tornadoes with the Italian Air Force.