History of Aviation Part One: The Early Years

The history of aviation extends much further than Orville Wright’s famous first flight in 1903.  In fact, people have studied concepts useful in flying and the dynamics behind flight since the 1200s.


Early Aviation

Roger Bacon, an ambitious monk from the 13th century, performed studies determining if air could support a craft just as water could support boats.  Leonardo DaVinci grew fascinated with flight, studying how birds were able to fly.  His discoveries helped him produce the parachute and the airscrew; the invention of the airscrew is credited with the invention of the propeller.  In the 19th century, John Stringfellow designed a steam engine that powered an aircraft attached to a wire.  Although the craft was able to lift, it could not climb.  Major developments throughout the rest of the 19th century contributed heavily to the history of aviation, and led to the historic flight of Orville and Wilbur Wright.

First Flight

On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first aircraft at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina.  The plane flew for 12 seconds and traveled 120 feet.  Orville and his brother Wilbur continued to improve their aircraft, and on December 31st of the same year, Wilbur flew a Flyer in France for two hours and 20 minutes. Now it was proven that the Wright Brothers aircraft was controllable.  This plane became the first military aircraft, servicing other pilots for two more years.  However, the history of aviation has not always been pleasant.  In September 1908, a plane piloted by Orville crashed, injuring himself and his passenger Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge.  Selfridge died of a concussion a few hours later, becoming the first person killed in an airplane crash.

Radial Engines

Radial engines were invented several years prior to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s historic flight.  C.M. Manley invented the first water-cooled radial engine in 1901, a five-cylinder model.  In 1903, Jacob Ellehammer installed a three-cylinder radial engine in a tri-plane that made short hops, inspiring him to develop a six-cylinder engine (with two rows of three cylinders) in 1908.  However, even with a good power-to-weight ratio, the engine still lacked control.  Since early radial engines often frustrated with cooling problems, rotary engines were more popular from 1909-1919. Throughout World War I, rotary engines took precedence in military aircraft.  In the 1920’s, Bristol Aeroplane Company and Armstrong Siddeley developed a more reliable cooling system for rotary engines;  the US Navy announced it would only purchase aircraft with air-cooled radial engines in 1921.  This led to the founding of Pratt and Whitney, who eventually created the Pratt and WhitneyR-1340/Wasp, R-985/Wasp Jr. and numerous other radial engines.,

Human beings have been fascinated with flight even since the 13thcentury.  Early aviation pioneers like Leonardo DaVinci were instrumental in the creation of today’s air travel.  Covington Aircraft invites you to join their online community on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to learn more about the history of aviation.

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