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The Modern Period US Military Aircraft - History

The Modern Period US Military Aircraft - History

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A Brief History of Aviation by JustFly

Throughout history, countless records have demonstrated man’s fascination with flight. While the true origin of this quest to fly has long been lost, the reason behind it is quite obvious. As humans, we are hardwired with the desire to see the world, to visit the great landscapes that we have yet to lay eyes upon.

Having the ability to fly allows us to reach these places, and reach them fast. While the first untethered human flight occurred in the late 1700s, ideas and designs for man-carrying flight contraptions can be traced to as far back as 428 BC. Let’s take a quick look at the past achievements that have led to the advanced aviation technologies of today.

The Five Worst Fighter Aircraft of All Time

Over the last century of military aviation, several fighters have earned the nickname “flying coffin.” Military aviation inherently pushes up against the limits of technology and human endurance, particularly where fighter and pursuit aviation is concerned. Flying a fighter is remarkably dangerous, even when no one is trying to shoot you down.

Engineering a capable fighter plane is also a struggle. Relatively small changes in engine, armament, and airframe design can transform a clunker into an elite fighting machine many of the best fighters in history were initially viewed askance by their pilots. But elite status rarely lasts for long, especially in World War I and World War II. Fighters that dominated the sky in one year become “flying coffins” as technology and tactics move forward.

And thus the difference between a great fighter and a terrible fighter can be remarkably small. As with the previous list, the critical work is in determining the criteria. Fighters are national strategic assets, and must be evaluated as such:

· Did this aircraft fail at the tactical tasks that it was given? Did it perform poorly against its direct contemporaries?

· Did the fighter show up, or was it in the hangar when it was needed? Was it more of a danger to its pilots than to enemy fighters?

· Did it represent a misappropriation of national assets?

So what are the worst fighter aircraft of all time? For these purposes, we’ll be concentrating on fighters that enjoyed production runs of 500 or more aircraft (listed in parentheses) curiosities such as the XF-84H “Thunderscreech” need not apply.

Royal B.E.2 (3500)

Preparing aircraft before anyone had fought an air war was undoubtedly a struggle for pilots and engineers. The Royal B.E.2 was one of the first military aircraft put into serious industrial production, with a run of around 3500 aircraft. First flown in 1912, it remained in service until 1919, with its responsibilities steadily declining as better aircraft became available.

In a sense, the B.E.2 inspired the first generation of fighters by displaying all of the qualities that no one wanted in a fighter aircraft, including poor visibility, poor reliability, difficulty of control, slow speed, and weak armament. The advent of the Fokker Eindecker made the B.E.2 positively hazardous to fly. Refinements often hurt more than they helped, with the plane becoming steadily more dangerous and accident prone as grew heavier.

It’s tough to give a failing grade to a first effort. But the B.E.2’s difficulty and poor reliability, combined with the British decision to keep it in service well beyond its freshness date, earn it a spot on this list. Incidentally, the failure of the Royal Flying Corps to effectively substitute for the B.E.2 in a timely fashion provided much grist for early advocates of the Royal Air Force, the world’s first independent air force.

Brewster Buffalo (509)

A short, squat, and unattractive aircraft, the Buffalo entered service in the same year as the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and the Bf-109, two overwhelmingly superior aircraft. Intended to serve as both a land and carrier-borne fighter, the Buffalo saw its first combat in Finnish service, as several were transferred from the United States after the Winter War. Weight increases during the design process included provisions for heavier armament, extra fuel, and armor plating. Unfortunately, these left the airframe dreadfully underpowered, unable to keep up or maneuver with its best contemporaries. Although the Buffalos operated by the Finnish Air Force did well against the Soviets in the early days of the “continuation war,” Buffalo pilots serving in Commonwealth and Dutch air forces in Southeast Asia were massacred by Japanese fliers in Zeros and Oscars. To add to its least desirable characteristics, the Buffalo performed poorly in the high temperatures common in the tropics.

Marine Corps pilots referred to the Buffalo as—you guessed it—a “flying coffin” in the wake of the Battle of Midway, where the aircraft performed disastrously against the Japanese. It was quickly replaced in U.S. service by its far more effective counterpart, the Grumman F4F Wildcat.

Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3 (6528)

Military modernization is often about timing, and the Soviet Union of the 1930s rebuilt its military industries slightly too quickly, optimizing production around technologies that would fall a step behind foreign contemporaries. The LaGG-3, first flow in 1940 but developed from the LaGG-1, was the Soviet Air Forces premier fighter during the German invasion of 1941, and was such a disaster that, playing on the fighter’s acronym, pilots referred to it as “the varnished guaranteed coffin.”

Although it entered service five years after the Bf-109, the LaGG-3 was essentially hopeless in combat against its contemporary. It unfortunately combined lightweight wood construction with an underpowered engine, which meant that it struggled to gain tactical advantage against heavier German fighters, yet went to pieces when hit. Combined with desperate Soviet pilot training practices of the war, there’s little surprise as to how German and Finnish aviators gained such remarkably high totals against their Soviet opponents. Production of the LaGG-3 should have ended in 1942, but the agility of the Soviet military industrial complex being what it was, continued until 1944.

Century Series (F-101 (807), F-102 (1000), F-104 (2578), F-105 (833))

Picking a candidate from the Century series was a struggle. Most of the Century Series aircraft were developed while the Air Force was still dominated by the strategic bombing cadre, and interested primarily in the prospects of nuclear combat with the Soviet Union. Tactical Air Command tried to resolve this problem by making itself as “strategic” as possible, focusing on interceptors that could catch and kill Soviet bombers, and also on fighters heavy enough to deliver nuclear weapons. This left the fighters of the USAF poorly equipped to tangle with the tiny, maneuverable MiGs deployed by the PAVNAF.

The series was not a complete disaster the F-100 was an adequate second generation fighter, the F-106 an entirely capable interceptor. The rest had the sort of troubles expected of a misaligned set of strategic and technological concepts. The McDonnell F-101 Voodoo was an interceptor converted into a fighter-bomber, a combination that made nearly no sense. It would mostly see service as a recon aircraft. The Convair F-102 Delta Dagger performed inadequately as both an interceptor and a fighter-bomber, briefly seeing combat in Vietnam before turning in its most notable service as a remote-control target drone.

The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was fast, beautiful, and a death trap, earning the “flying coffin” nickname while suffering over thirty mishaps per 100000 flight hours (it was also known as the “Missile with a Man in It”). Over 50% of F-104s in Canadian service were lost in crashes, over 30% in German. The enormous Republic F-105 Thunderchief deserved better designed as a nuclear bomber, it was ill-suited to the conventional bombing mission forced by the Vietnam War, and became easy prey to the Frescos, Fishbeds, and SA-2s.

The aircraft of the Century series had different builders, and were intended to perform different missions. However, they were procured in enormous quantities, and all suffered from problems associated with the same cause the inability of the United States Air Force to conceptualize warfare outside of the strategic realm.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (5047)

The MiG-23 was supposed to be the Soviet answer to the big American fighters such as the F-4 and F-111, a powerful swing-wing fighter that could also perform attack and interception roles. And the Flogger surely was powerful.

But the Flogger was a beast to fly and to maintain. American “Red Eagle” pilots, tasked with determining the capabilities of Soviet aircraft, considered the Flogger a disaster waiting to happen. In 1984, Lieutenant General Robert M. Bond died flying a USAF operated Flogger. A relatively large aircraft, the Flogger also lacked many of the best qualities of its predecessors, including a small visual profile.

The MiG-23 was initially intended to fill out the air forces of the Warsaw Pact, but the Soviet clients generally preferred to keep their Fishbeds. Indeed, in export terms the MiG-23 was essentially a cheap loss-leader for the Soviet engine and technical support industries, as it proved remarkably difficult to safely keep in service. By design, engines burned out quickly, meaning that export customers who had fallen out of Soviet graces quickly lost the use of their fighters. The Flogger’s combat record, generally in Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan service, has not been positive. It’s hardly surprising that the MiG-23 will almost certainly leave service before its predecessor, the MiG-21.

In terms of future members of this list, attention naturally falls on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which should exceed the 500 aircraft threshold. As I’ve argued before, it’s difficult to get a sense of the strategic value of the aircraft without a full perspective on its career. We won’t know whether the JSF is a deserving member of this list for quite some time. For one, it’s unlikely that the F-35 will suffer from anything approaching the accident rate of the fighters on this list. The JSF’s tremendous expense, however, undoubtedly makes it a long term candidate for inclusion.

History of Aviation - First Flights

On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright capped four years of research and design efforts with a 120-foot, 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina - the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. Prior to that, people had flown only in balloons and gliders. The first person to fly as a passenger was Leon Delagrange, who rode with French pilot Henri Farman from a meadow outside of Paris in 1908. Charles Furnas became the first American airplane passenger when he flew with Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk later that year.

First Flights

On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright capped four years of research and design efforts with a 120-foot, 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina - the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. Prior to that, people had flown only in balloons and gliders.

The first person to fly as a passenger was Leon Delagrange, who rode with French pilot Henri Farman from a meadow outside of Paris in 1908. Charles Furnas became the first American airplane passenger when he flew with Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk later that year.

The first scheduled air service began in Florida on January 1, 1914. Glenn Curtiss had designed a plane that could take off and land on water and thus could be built larger than any plane to date, because it did not need the heavy undercarriage required for landing on hard ground. Thomas Benoist, an auto parts maker, decided to build such a flying boat, or seaplane, for a service across Tampa Bay called the St. Petersburg - Tampa Air Boat Line. His first passenger was ex-St. Petersburg Mayor A.C. Pheil, who made the 18-mile trip in 23 minutes, a considerable improvement over the two-hour trip by boat. The single-plane service accommodated one passenger at a time, and the company charged a one-way fare of $5. After operating two flights a day for four months, the company folded with the end of the winter tourist season.

World War I

These and other early flights were headline events, but commercial aviation was very slow to catch on with the general public, most of whom were afraid to ride in the new flying machines. Improvements in aircraft design also were slow. However, with the advent of World War I, the military value of aircraft was quickly recognized and production increased significantly to meet the soaring demand for planes from governments on both sides of the Atlantic. Most significant was the development of more powerful motors, enabling aircraft to reach speeds of up to 130 miles per hour, more than twice the speed of pre-war aircraft. Increased power also made larger aircraft possible.

At the same time, the war was bad for commercial aviation in several respects. It focused all design and production efforts on building military aircraft. In the public's mind, flying became associated with bombing runs, surveillance and aerial dogfights. In addition, there was such a large surplus of planes at the end of the war that the demand for new production was almost nonexistent for several years - and many aircraft builders went bankrupt. Some European countries, such as Great Britain and France, nurtured commercial aviation by starting air service over the English Channel. However, nothing similar occurred in the United States, where there were no such natural obstacles isolating major cities and where railroads could transport people almost as fast as an airplane, and in considerably more comfort. The salvation of the U.S. commercial aviation industry following World War I was a government program, but one that had nothing to do with the transportation of people.


By 1917, the U.S. government felt enough progress had been made in the development of planes to warrant something totally new - the transport of mail by air. That year, Congress appropriated $100,000 for an experimental airmail service to be conducted jointly by the Army and the Post Office between Washington and New York, with an intermediate stop in Philadelphia. The first flight left Belmont Park, Long Island for Philadelphia on May 14, 1918 and the next day continued on to Washington, where it was met by President Woodrow Wilson.

With a large number of war-surplus aircraft in hand, the Post Office set its sights on a far more ambitious goal - transcontinental air service. It opened the first segment, between Chicago and Cleveland, on May 15, 1919 and completed the air route on September 8, 1920, when the most difficult part of the route, the Rocky Mountains, was spanned. Airplanes still could not fly at night when the service first began, so the mail was handed off to trains at the end of each day. Nonetheless, by using airplanes the Post Office was able to shave 22 hours off coast-to-coast mail deliveries.


In 1921, the Army deployed rotating beacons in a line between Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, a distance of about 80 miles. The beacons, visible to pilots at 10-second intervals, made it possible to fly the route at night.

The Post Office took over the operation of the guidance system the following year, and by the end of 1923, constructed similar beacons between Chicago and Cheyenne, Wyoming, a line later extended coast-to-coast at a cost of $550,000. Mail then could be delivered across the continent in as little as 29 hours eastbound and 34 hours westbound - prevailing winds from west to east accounted for the difference which was at least two days less than it took by train.

The Contract Air Mail Act of 1925

By the mid-1920s, the Post Office mail fleet was flying 2.5 million miles and delivering 14 million letters annually. However, the government had no intention of continuing airmail service on its own. Traditionally, the Post Office had used private companies for the transportation of mail. So, once the feasibility of airmail was firmly established and airline facilities were in place, the government moved to transfer airmail service to the private sector, by way of competitive bids. The legislative authority for the move was the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925, commonly referred to as the Kelly Act after its chief sponsor, Rep. Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania. This was the first major step toward the creation of a private U.S. airline industry. Winners of the initial five contracts were National Air Transport (owned by the Curtiss Aeroplane Co.), Varney Air Lines, Western Air Express, Colonial Air Transport and Robertson Aircraft Corporation. National and Varney would later become important parts of United Air Lines (originally a joint venture of the Boeing Airplane Company and Pratt & Whitney). Western would merge with Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), another Curtiss subsidiary, to form Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). Robertson would become part of the Universal Aviation Corporation, which in turn would merge with Colonial, Southern Air Transport and others, to form American Airways, predecessor of American Airlines. Juan Trippe, one of the original partners in Colonial, later pioneered international air travel with Pan Am - a carrier he founded in 1927 to transport mail between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. Pitcairn Aviation, yet another Curtiss subsidiary that got its start transporting mail, would become Eastern Air Transport, predecessor of Eastern Air Lines.

The Morrow Board

The same year Congress passed the Contract Air Mail Act, President Calvin Coolidge appointed a board to recommend a national aviation policy (a much-sought-after goal of then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover). Dwight Morrow, a senior partner in J.P. Morgan's bank, and later the father-in-law of Charles Lindbergh, was named chairman. The board heard testimony from 99 people, and on November 30, 1925, submitted its report to President Coolidge. The report was wide-ranging, but its key recommendation was that the government should set standards for civil aviation and that the standards should be set outside of the military.

The Air Commerce Act of 1926

Congress adopted the recommendations of the Morrow Board almost to the letter in the Air Commerce Act of 1926. The legislation authorized the Secretary of Commerce to designate air routes, to develop air navigation systems, to license pilots and aircraft, and to investigate accidents. The act brought the government into commercial aviation as regulator of the private airlines spawned by the Kelly Act of the previous year.

Congress also adopted the board's recommendation for airmail contracting, by amending the Kelly Act to change the method of compensation for airmail services. Instead of paying carriers a percentage of the postage paid, the government would pay them according to the weight of the mail. This simplified payments, and proved highly advantageous to the carriers, which collected $48 million from the government for the carriage of mail between 1926 and 1931.

Ford's Tin Goose

Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, was also among the early successful bidders for airmail contracts, winning the right, in 1925, to carry mail from Chicago to Detroit and Cleveland aboard planes his company already was using to transport spare parts for his automobile assembly plants. More importantly, he jumped into aircraft manufacturing, and in 1927, produced the Ford Trimotor, commonly referred to as the Tin Goose. It was one of the first all-metal planes, made of a new material, duralumin, which was almost as light as aluminum but twice as strong. It also was the first plane designed primarily to carry passengers rather than mail. The Ford Trimotor had 12 passenger seats a cabin high enough for a passenger to walk down the aisle without stooping and room for a "stewardess," or flight attendant, the first of whom were nurses, hired by United in 1930 to serve meals and assist airsick passengers. The Tin Goose's three engines made it possible to fly higher and faster (up to 130 miles per hour), and its sturdy appearance, combined with the Ford name, had a reassuring effect on the public's perception of flying. However, it was another event, in 1927, that brought unprecedented public attention to aviation and helped secure the industry's future as a major mode of transportation.

Charles Lindbergh

At 7:52 a.m. on May 20, 1927, a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh set out on an historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to Paris. It was the first trans-Atlantic non-stop flight in an airplane, and its effect on both Lindbergh and aviation was enormous. Lindbergh became an instant American hero. Aviation became a more established industry, attracting millions of private investment dollars almost overnight, as well as the support of millions of Americans.

The pilot who sparked all of this attention had dropped out of engineering school at the University of Wisconsin to learn how to fly. He became a barnstormer, doing aerial shows across the country, and eventually joined the Robertson Aircraft Corporation, to transport mail between St. Louis and Chicago.

In planning his trans-Atlantic voyage, Lindbergh daringly decided to fly by himself, without a navigator, so he could carry more fuel. His plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, was slightly less than 28 feet in length, with a wingspan of 46 feet. It carried 450 gallons of gasoline, which comprised half its takeoff weight. There was too little room in the cramped cockpit for navigating by the stars, so Lindbergh flew by dead reckoning. He divided maps from his local library into thirty-three 100-mile segments, noting the heading he would follow as he flew each segment. When he first sighted the coast of Ireland, he was almost exactly on the route he had plotted, and he landed several hours later, with 80 gallons of fuel to spare.

Lindbergh's greatest enemy on his journey was fatigue. The trip took an exhausting 33 hours, 29 minutes and 30 seconds, but he managed to keep awake by sticking his head out the window to inhale cold air, by holding his eyelids open, and by constantly reminding himself that if he fell asleep he would perish. In addition, he had a slight instability built into his airplane that helped keep him focused and awake.

Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Field, outside of Paris, at 10:24 p.m. Paris time on May 21. Word of his flight preceded him and a large crowd of Parisians rushed out to the airfield to see him and his little plane. There was no question about the magnitude of what he had accomplished. The Air Age had arrived.

The Watres Act and the Spoils Conference

In 1930, Postmaster General Walter Brown pushed for legislation that would have another major impact on the development of commercial aviation. Known as the Watres Act (after one of its chief sponsors, Rep. Laurence H. Watres of Pennsylvania), it authorized the Post Office to enter into longer-term contracts for airmail, with rates based on space or volume, rather than weight. In addition, the act authorized the Post Office to consolidate airmail routes, where it was in the national interest to do so. Brown believed the changes would promote larger, stronger airlines, as well as more coast-to-coast and nighttime service.

Immediately after Congress approved the act, Brown held a series of meetings in Washington to discuss the new contracts. The meetings were later dubbed the Spoils Conference because Brown gave them little publicity and directly invited only a handful of people from the larger airlines. He designated three transcontinental mail routes and made it clear that he wanted only one company operating each service rather than a number of small airlines handing the mail off to one another. His actions brought political trouble that resulted in major changes to the system two years later.

Scandal and the Air Mail Act of 1934

Following the Democratic landslide in the election of 1932, some of the smaller airlines began complaining to news reporters and politicians that they had been unfairly denied airmail contracts by Brown. One reporter discovered that a major contract had been awarded to an airline whose bid was three times higher than a rival bid from a smaller airline. Congressional hearings followed, chaired by Sen. Hugo Black of Alabama, and by 1934 the scandal had reached such proportions as to prompt President Franklin Roosevelt to cancel all mail contracts and turn mail deliveries over to the Army.

The decision was a mistake. The Army pilots were unfamiliar with the mail routes, and the weather at the time they took over the deliveries, February 1934, was terrible. There were a number of accidents as the pilots flew practice runs and began carrying the mail, leading to newspaper headlines that forced President Roosevelt to retreat from his plan only a month after he had turned the mail over to the Army

By means of the Air Mail Act of 1934, the government once again returned airmail transportation to the private sector, but it did so under a new set of rules that would have a significant impact on the industry. Bidding was structured to be more competitive, and former contract holders were not allowed to bid at all, so many companies were reorganized. The result was a more even distribution of the government's mail business and lower mail rates that forced airlines and aircraft manufacturers to pay more attention to the development of the passenger side of the business.

In another major change, the government forced the dismantling of the vertical holding companies common up to that time in the industry, sending aircraft manufacturers and airline operators (most notably Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, and United Air Lines) their separate ways. The entire industry was now reorganized and refocused.

Aircraft Innovations

For the airlines to attract passengers away from the railroads, they needed both larger and faster airplanes. They also needed safer airplanes. Accidents, such as the one in 1931 that killed Notre Dame Football Coach Knute Rockne along with six others, kept people from flying

Aircraft manufacturers responded to the challenge. There were so many improvements to aircraft in the 1930s that many believe it was the most innovative period in aviation history. Air-cooled engines replaced water-cooled engines, reducing weight and making larger and faster planes possible. Cockpit instruments also improved, with better altimeters, airspeed indicators, rate-of-climb indicators, compasses, and the introduction of artificial horizon, which showed pilots the attitude of the aircraft relative to the ground - important for flying in reduced visibility


Another development of enormous importance to aviation was radio. Aviation and radio developed almost in lock step. Marconi sent his first message across the Atlantic on the airwaves just two years before the Wright Brothers? first flight at Kitty Hawk. By World War I, some pilots were taking radios up in the air with them so they could communicate with people on the ground. The airlines followed suit after the war, using radio to transmit weather information from the ground to their pilots, so they could avoid storms

An even more significant development, however, was the realization that radio could be used as an aid to navigation when visibility was poor and visual navigation aids, such as beacons, were useless. Once technical problems were worked out, the Department of Commerce constructed 83 radio beacons across the country. They became fully operational in 1932, automatically transmitting directional beams, or tracks, that pilots could follow to their destination. Marker beacons came next, allowing pilots to locate airports in poor visibility. The first air traffic control tower was established in 1935 at what is now Newark International Airport in New Jersey

The First Modern Airliners

Boeing built what generally is considered the first modern passenger airliner, the Boeing 247. It was unveiled in 1933, and United Air Lines promptly bought 60 of them. Based on a low-wing, twin-engine bomber with retractable landing gear built for the military, the 247 accommodated 10 passengers and cruised at 155 miles per hour. Its cabin was insulated, to reduce engine noise levels inside the plane, and it featured such amenities as upholstered seats and a hot water heater to make flying more comfortable to passengers. Eventually, Boeing also gave the 247 variable-pitch propellers, that reduced takeoff distances, increased the rate of climb, and boosted cruising speeds

Not to be outdone by United, TWA went searching for an alternative to the 247 and eventually found what it wanted from the Douglas Aircraft Company. Its DC-1 incorporated Boeing's innovations and improved upon many of them. The DC-1 had a more powerful engine and accommodations for two more passengers than did the 247. More importantly, the airframe was designed so that the skin of the aircraft bore most of the stress on the plane during flight. There was no interior skeleton of metal spars, thus giving passengers more room than they had in the 247.The DC-1 also was easier to fly. It was equipped with the first automatic pilot and the first efficient wing flaps, for added lift during takeoff. However, for all its advancements, only one DC-1 was ever built. Douglas decided almost immediately to alter its design, adding 18 inches to its length so it could accommodate two more passengers. The new, longer version was called the DC-2 and it was a big success, but the best was still to come

The DC-3

Called the plane that changed the world, the DC-3 was the first aircraft to enable airlines to make money carrying passengers. As a result, it quickly became the dominant aircraft in the United States, following its debut in 1936 with American Airlines (which played a key role in its design).

The DC-3 had 50 percent greater passenger capacity than the DC-2 (21 seats versus 14), yet cost only ten percent more to operate. It also was considered a safer plane, built of an aluminum alloy stronger than materials previously used in aircraft construction. It had more powerful engines (1,000 horsepower versus 710 horsepower for the DC-2), and it could travel coast to coast in only 16 hours - a fast trip for that time.

Another important improvement was the use of a hydraulic pump to lower and raise the landing gear. This freed pilots from having to crank the gear up and down during takeoffs and landings. For greater passenger comfort, the DC-3 had a noise-deadening plastic insulation, and seats set in rubber to minimize vibrations. It was a fantastically popular airplane, and it helped attract many new travelers to flying.

Pressurized Cabins

Although planes such as the Boeing 247 and the DC-3 represented significant advances in aircraft design, they had a major drawback. They could fly no higher than 10,000 feet, because people became dizzy and even fainted, due to the reduced levels of oxygen at higher altitudes.

The airlines wanted to fly higher, to get above the air turbulence and storms common at lower altitudes. Motion sickness was a problem for many airline passengers, and an inhibiting factor to the industry's growth.

The breakthrough came at Boeing with the Stratoliner, a derivation of the B-17 bomber introduced in 1940 and first flown by TWA. It was the first pressurized aircraft, meaning that air was pumped into the aircraft as it gained altitude to maintain an atmosphere inside the cabin similar to the atmosphere that occurs naturally at lower altitudes. With its regulated air compressor, the 33-seat Stratoliner could fly as high as 20,000 feet and reach speeds of 200 miles per hour.

The Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938

Government decisions continued to prove as important to aviation's future as technological breakthroughs, and one of the most important aviation bills ever enacted by Congress was the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. Until that time, numerous government agencies and departments had a hand in aviation policy. Airlines sometimes were pushed and pulled in several directions, and there was no central agency working for the long-term development of the industry. All the airlines had been losing money, since the postal reforms in 1934 significantly reduced the amount they were paid for carrying the mail.

The airlines wanted more rationalized government regulation, through an independent agency, and the Civil Aeronautics Act gave them what they needed. It created the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) and gave the new agency power to regulate airline fares, airmail rates, interline agreements, mergers and routes. Its mission was to preserve order in the industry, holding rates to reasonable levels while, at the same time nurturing the still financially-shaky airline industry, thereby encouraging the development of commercial air transportation.

Congress created a separate agency - the Air Safety Board - to investigate accidents. In 1940, however, President Roosevelt convinced Congress to transfer the accident investigation function to the CAA, which was then renamed the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). These moves, coupled with the tremendous progress made on the technological side, put the industry on the road to success.

World War II

Aviation had an enormous impact on the course of World War II and the war had just as significant an impact on aviation. There were fewer than 300 air transport aircraft in the United States when Hitler marched into Poland in 1939. By the end of the war, U.S. aircraft manufacturers were producing 50,000 planes a year.

Most of the planes, of course, were fighters and bombers, but the importance of air transports to the war effort quickly became apparent as well. Throughout the war, the airlines provided much needed airlift to keep troops and supplies moving, to the front and throughout the production chain back home. For the first time in their history, the airlines had far more business - for passengers as well as freight - than they could handle. Many of them also had opportunities to pioneer new routes, gaining an exposure that would give them a decidedly broader outlook at war's end.

While there were numerous advances in U.S. aircraft design during the war, that enabled planes to go faster, higher, and farther than ever before, mass production was the chief goal of the United States. The major innovations of the wartime period - radar and jet engines - occurred in Europe.

The Jet Engine

Isaac Newton was the first to theorize, in the 18th century, that a rearward-channeled explosion could propel a machine forward at a great rate of speed. However, no one found a practical application for the theory until Frank Whittle, a British pilot, designed the first jet engine in 1930. Even then, widespread skepticism about the commercial viability of a jet prevented Whittle's design from being tested for several years.

The Germans were the first to build and test a jet aircraft. Based on a design by Hans von Ohain, a student whose work was independent of Whittle's, it flew in 1939, although not as well as the Germans had hoped. It would take another five years for German scientists to perfect the design, by which time it was, fortunately, too late to affect the outcome of the war.

Whittle also improved his jet engine during the war, and in 1942 he shipped an engine prototype to General Electric in the United States. America's first jet plane - the Bell P-59 - was built the following year.


Another technological development with a much greater impact on the war's outcome (and later on commercial aviation) was radar. British scientists had been working on a device that could give them early warning of approaching enemy aircraft even before the war began, and by 1940 Britain had a line of radar transceivers along its east coast that could detect German aircraft the moment they took off from the Continent. British scientists also perfected the cathode ray oscilloscope, which produced map-type outlines of surrounding countryside and showed aircraft as a pulsing light. Americans, meanwhile, found a way to distinguish between enemy aircraft and allied aircraft by installing transponders aboard the latter that signaled their identity to radar operators.

Dawn of the Jet Age

Aviation was poised to advance rapidly following the war, in large part because of the development of jets, but there still were significant problems to overcome. In 1952, a 36-seat British-made jet, the Comet, flew from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, at speeds as high as 500 miles per hour. Two years later, the Comet's career ended abruptly following two back-to-back accidents in which the fuselage burst apart during flight - the result of metal fatigue.

The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, following World War II, helped secure the funding needed to solve such problems and advance the jet's development. Most of the breakthroughs related to military aircraft that later were applied to the commercial sector. For example, Boeing employed a swept-back wing design for its B-47 and B-52 bombers to reduce drag and increase speed. Later, the design was incorporated into commercial jets, making them faster and thus more attractive to passengers. The best example of military - civilian technology transfer was the jet tanker Boeing designed for the Air Force to refuel bombers in flight. The tanker, the KC-135, was a huge success as a military plane, but even more successful when revamped and introduced, in 1958, as the first U.S. passenger jet, the Boeing 707. With a length of 125 feet and four engines with 17,000 pounds of thrust each, the 707 could carry up to 181 passengers and travel at speeds of 550 miles per hour. Its engines proved more reliable than piston-driven engines - producing less vibration, putting less stress on the plane's airframe and reducing maintenance expenses. They also burned kerosene, which cost half as much as the high-octane gasoline used in more traditional planes. With the 707, first ordered and operated by Pan Am, all questions about the commercial feasibility of jets were answered. The Jet Age had arrived, and other airlines soon were lining up to buy the new aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Act of 1958

Following World War II, air travel soared, but with the industry's growth came new problems. In 1956 two aircraft collided over the Grand Canyon, killing 128 people. The skies were getting too crowded for existing systems of aircraft separation, and Congress responded by passing the Federal Aviation Act of 1958.

The legislation created a new safety regulatory agency, the Federal Aviation Agency, later called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when Congress created the Department of Transportation (DOT) in 1967. The agency was charged with establishing and running a broad air traffic control system, to maintain safe separation of all commercial aircraft through all phases of flight. In addition, it assumed jurisdiction over all other aviation safety matters, such as the certification of aircraft designs, and airline training and maintenance programs. The Civil Aeronautics Board retained jurisdiction over economic matters, such as airline routes and rates.

Wide-bodies and Supersonics

1969 marked the debut of another revolutionary aircraft, the Boeing 747, which, again, Pan Am was the first to purchase and fly in commercial service. It was the first wide-body jet, with two aisles, a distinctive upper deck over the front section of the fuselage, and four engines. With seating for as many as 450 passengers, it was twice as big as any other Boeing jet and 80 percent bigger than the largest jet up until that time, the DC-8.

Recognizing the economies of scale to be gained from larger jets, other aircraft manufacturers quickly followed suit. Douglas built its first wide-body, the DC-10, in 1970, and only a month later, Lockheed flew its contender in the wide-body market, the L-1011. Both of these jets had three engines (one under each wing and one on the tail) and were smaller than the 747, seating about 250 passengers.

Aircraft That Changed the World

World changers. It’s almost easier to explain what we don’t mean by that phrase than to define what we do. We have not compiled a list of trailblazers, like the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jetliner. Nor is this a list of airplanes that represent the greatest advances of aeronautics, such as the experimental aircraft that led to supersonic flight. Rather, we looked for craft that had an impact beyond the realm of things that fly, that reached into the larger culture and touched even those who aren’t frequent fliers or connected to aviation.

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Some of our choices are individual airplanes that happened to play a critical role in a world-changing event others are aircraft types that were so significant in commerce or in war that we could truly say of them: “These changed history.”

We were inspired by the recent book 50 Aircraft That Changed the World , and we could see immediately that authors Ron Dick and Dan Patterson had followed a wiser course: They had picked 50. We could accommodate only 10. We ended up with a list that includes some of those in the book, plus a few of our own.

The most heated debate that broke out in the course of making our selection was also the most revealing it showed how stringent our standards were—and how subjective. It was over The Spirit of St. Louis . Some editors argued that of course we had to include the airplane flown on the first solo, nonstop trip across the Atlantic Ocean—a trip that made its pilot an international celebrity and inspired a generation to fly long distances, or at least dream about it. Months after the 1927 event, when Charles Lindbergh flew the airplane, a purpose-built Ryan, on a tour across the United States to promote aeronautics, an estimated 50 million people󈟺 percent of the nation—turned out to see it.

But was it the airplane that people found so inspiring, or the pilot? It’s hard to imagine that journey being completed by anyone other than Lindbergh, but not so difficult to think that he could have done it in another type of airplane. In fact, he had considered an alternative, the Wright Bellanca WB 2.

We’re sure there are readers (more than a few in St. Louis and in San Diego, where The Spirit was built) who will disagree with that reasoning, or with other choices we made. In the end, selecting 10 aircraft from so many possibilities simply became a good excuse to do one of our favorite things: talk about airplanes. We bet you’ll want to join the discussion.

1. Wright 1905

We knew we wanted to start with a Wright airplane, but which most deserved the title of world changer? Wright biographer Tom Crouch, a National Air and Space Museum curator of early flight, nominated the brothers’ third powered aircraft. “The 1905 was the world’s first practical airplane,” he observes.

“The best of the four flights made by the 1903 aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, was only 852 feet in 59 seconds,” Crouch continues. “With that marginal success in hand, the Wrights decided to transfer flight operations to Huffman Prairie, eight miles east of their hometown, Dayton, Ohio. They built and tested two aircraft there, one during 1904 and another in 1905.

“Over the course of those two seasons, the Wrights fine-tuned their design, stretching the aircraft to improve stability and control, enlarging the control surfaces, and improving the propellers. (The same engine, a virtual replica of the one that powered the 1903 aircraft, powered both the 1904 and 1905 models.) On October 5, 1905, Wilbur Wright flew a distance of 24.5 miles in 59 minutes, 23.8 seconds. The brothers had finally achieved their original dream: developing a practical airplane capable of remaining aloft for a significant time and maneuvering under the full control of the pilot.

“The Wrights then faced the task of selling their invention. By the spring of 1908 they had been granted a patent and had signed contracts to sell airplanes to both the U.S. Army and a French syndicate.

“The brothers had not left the ground since the October 5, 1905 flight, however. In addition to brushing up on their flying skills, they had to make their first flights with a passenger, something required by both contracts, and operate a new set of controls necessitated by upright seating, another stipulation of the contracts.

“They pulled the 1905 machine out of storage and modified it with two upright seats and the new control system. They shipped it back to the Kill Devil Hills of North Carolina because they wanted to undertake the test flights in an area with steady winds, soft sand, and isolation from prying eyes. On May 14, 1908, first Wilbur and then Orville took their mechanic, Charles Furnas, up for a ride. These were the first airplane passenger flights in history.”

Crouch’s Museum colleague, early-flight curator and Wright scholar Peter Jakab, concurs with this choice of aircraft: “Even the Wrights did not see the 1903 airplane as the conclusion of their experimental work,” he says. “They had identified the final goal as a ‘machine of practical utility.’ They understood that the 1903 airplane, although embodying all the key technology, was not quite that. When they could stay aloft for an extended period, under the sure command of the pilot, and consistently land safely, they knew they had that ‘machine of practical utility.’ The 1905 machine was that airplane.

“When the Wrights were regularly flying over Huffman Prairie in the fall of 1905,” says Jakab, “that’s when the world truly changed.”

This MiG-15, a trainer bought by retired California contractor Tom Smith, has performed at U.S. airshows, demonstrating that jet fighters need not be pointy to impress. Since 1949, the Soviet Union and other nations have cranked out more than 18,000 examples of this internationally popular classic. (Anthony Zeljeznjak) The Wright 1905 was the first aircraft flyable for long stretches. (Library of Congress) A modern replica, in which builder Mark Dusenberry retraced a 1905 Wright flight. (Dan Patterson) The Honolulu Clipper was essentially the prototype Boeing 314. Though it took up to 20 hours to get from San Francisco to Honolulu, passengers were treated royally, and the public warmed to flight. (NASM (SI 73-5887)) Behold, the first incarnation of the airplane as we know it today. Surprisingly snazzy for its time, the Junkers F13 was one giant step beyond wood, fabric, and struts. (Courtesy Deutsches Museum) After the historic bombing of Hiroshima, the Enola Gay landed on Tinian, in the Mariana Islands. (NASM (SI 2000-4554)) Today, the Enola Gay has been restored and is displayed at NASM's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (Eric Long and Mark Avino (SI 98-15873)) A row of Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15s outside an underground air force complex in Kucove, Albania - on of more than 40 countries that have armed themselves with the long-lived fighter. (Chris Lofting) The Sikorsky S-55 wasn't pretty, but its many capabilities moved vertical flight forward. (NASM (SI 90-12967)) The Cessna 172 has been around so long, the variant list is up to the letter "S." (Bonnie Kratz) A Spanish flying club's N. Next year: a turbo-diesel version. (Is rocket power next?) (Oscar Laborda Sanchez - Iberian Spotters) At Miami's Opa Locka airport in 1964, spectators get their first look at the then-new (and still sexy) Learjet 23. (David Schulman) The Boeing 747's first Australian landing: Basking grandly in the attention at Sydney's international airport in 1970. (Wolodymir Nelowkin) No pilot, multiple roles: The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator provides firepower, surveillance, and recon. (SSGT Suzanne M. Jenkins/USAF)

2. Junkers F13

“The F13 was essentially the first aircraft to anticipate the onset of ‘modern’ air transport: cantilever [no wing struts], all metal, low wing, monoplane, streamlined (by the standards of the day),” says aviation historian Dick Hallion, this year’s A. Verville Fellow at the National Air and Space Museum. The metal construction, adds NASM air transport curator Ron Davies, “made it sturdier and less vulnerable to damage than the wood-and-fabric biplanes of its competitors. The metal was especially critical in resisting heat and humidity in tropical countries.”

The F13 first flew in 1919 (as the J13), and by the end of the year was in commercial service in Germany. “It established [founder Hugo] Junkers in a position of global air transport dominance that his firm would not relinquish until the mid-1930s, to Donald Douglas,” says Hallion. The F13 was used in the first airline service in the Americas (Colombia’s SCADTA).

Says Davies, “Unlike postwar transport airplanes that were modified from military types, the F13 was designed to carry passengers in an enclosed cabin. The four cushioned seats had seat belts, and the cabin was lighted and had picture windows.” Now that’s air travel.

After World War I, Germany was prohibited from operating the aircraft, but it sold them or licensed manufacture to 30 countries, including Hungary, Iceland, the Soviet Union, and Japan. In those years, the F13 established air routes in both Europe and the Americas. The last retired in 1948.

3. Boeing 314

In the hands of Pan American Airways, Boeing’s majestic flying boat, the 314, established mail and passenger routes across the north Atlantic, south Atlantic, and Pacific. In Pan Am, An Airline and Its Aircraft , NASM’s Ron Davies writes: “The B 314 flying boat put up all kinds of records, but none could compare with the establishment of the North Atlantic service in 1939 in the epoch-making series of inaugural flights which were, perhaps, Pan American’s greatest contribution to air transport in all its distinguished history.”

On the 314’s Pacific route (San Francisco-Honolulu-Midway Island-Wake Island-Guam-Manila), service was opulent—even the flight deck was described as luxurious—with a lounge, dining area, sleeping berths, and dressing rooms, as well as chefs and china from four-star hotels. Advertisements for the Clippers (named for their nautical forebears) promised an experience that was not just safe but sumptuous, exciting the public about flight.

The 314s were the stars of Pan Am’s fleet for only three years World War II shut down commercial operations. Still, it was not until the 1960s, with the debut of wide-body airliners such as the Boeing 747, that the B-314s were dethroned as the world’s largest scheduled-use commercial aircraft.

4. The Enola Gay

It was the first use of an atomic bomb: On August 6, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay bombed the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing 70,000 and hastening the end of World War II. (When another Superfortress, Bockscar , dropped a second atomic bomb three days later on Nagasaki, Japan surrendered.) The two missions averted a planned U.S. invasion in which casualties were projected to run into the millions.

The image of those mushroom clouds was unforgettable. For the next 50 years, the nightmare scenario of another attack of such magnitude kept the two nuclear superpowers locked in a tense and costly cold war.

The B-29 was the world’s first nuclear-capable aircraft. It also was the first with a pressurized compartment for the flight crew and the first U.S. bomber with an integrated radar to supplement its Norden bombsight. With a maximum takeoff weight of 140,000 pounds, the four-engine, 11-crewman B-29 could carry up to 20,000 pounds of bombs. It was flown from 1943 to 1954, although the Air Force continued flying variants as tankers until 1978.

Late in World War II, three B-29s made emergency landings (a fourth crash-landed) in Vladivostok, Siberia, after bombing runs over Japan. The Soviets kept them, studied them, and copied them, producing the Tu-4 bomber. Until about 1955, the Tu-4 was the main bomber of the Soviet Union—America’s cold war enemy.

5. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15

Still a hot-looking airplane 59 years after it entered service, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 made its mark during the Korean War as the Soviet Union’s first jet-powered day interceptor with a pressurized cabin and an ejection seat.

The MiG-15’s mission was to pick off U.S. B-29 bombers, which led to storied dogfights between the MiGs and the B-29s’ fighter escorts, North American F-86s. Though an improved version of the MiG-15 could climb higher and faster than the F-86, U.S. Air Force pilots generally made up the difference with better aerial combat training. Still, the 670-mph MiG-15 put the world on notice that the Soviets could build cutting-edge aeronautical technology.

“The MiG-15 gave the Soviet air arm legitimacy and lethal potential in the early years of the cold war,” says Von Hardesty, NASM’s curator of Russian aviation history. “The MiG-15 also possessed a certain aesthetic quality: sleek, fast—the very embodiment of what a jet fighter should be.”

Its performance must have reinforced that impression. More MiG-15s 󈟜,000—have been made than any other jet aircraft in history. (Counting licensed versions made in other countries, the number reaches 18,000.) The type has been sold to 43 countries—from Sri Lanka to Cuba to Uganda.

6. Sikorsky S-55

While the helicopter — with its enviable ability to hover, dart in all directions, and land virtually anywhere—had achieved a measure of success in the 1930s and 1940s, it wasn’t until the Sikorsky S-55 made its debut with the U.S. Navy in Korea in 1950 that rotary-wing history was utterly transformed. “For my money,” says Roger Connor, NASM’s vertical flight curator, “though other models pioneered various military and civil applications, the S-55 was the one that saw a real return on the investment put into helicopter development.”

The dazzling success of the S-55—both nationally and internationally—was based on the aircraft’s ability to fill multiple roles: troop and cargo transport, air assault, and casualty evacuation. That versatility resulted in unprecedented demand𔃉,700-plus were built, more than any previous helicopter type.

The design was brilliant: Sikorsky Aircraft completely reconfigured its earlier layouts to create the first helicopter with a cabin capable of carrying 10 passengers or seven stretchers, and moved the engine to the nose, enabling easier maintenance and solving the center-of-gravity problems previous single-rotor models had experienced. By the end of the Korean War, Sikorsky’s machine had rescued downed pilots, saved the lives of 10,000 wounded soldiers, and delivered escaped prisoners from behind enemy lines.

In addition, the S-55 served as the core of counter-insurgency efforts by the British in Malaya and the French in Indochina, pushing both nations to establish their own aggressive helicopter programs. In American and foreign civil service, the S-55 pioneered helicopter airline transport.

Says Connor, “The accomplishments of the S-55 shifted public opinion—as well as the opinion of military and aviation insiders—from seeing the helicopter as an amusing but not terribly practical curiosity to a necessary tool of the modern age.”

7. Cessna 172

Cessna’s four-seat, high-wing classic is the fresh-faced girl next door: no knockout but a great personality. In 2006, on the occasion of the 172’s 50th birthday, Air & Space/Smithsonian researcher Roger A. Mola wrote, “There’s hardly a pilot flying today who hasn’t logged at least a few hours in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk.” It’s the most successful mass-produced light aircraft ever, with some 36,000 built and still counting, recalling those McDonald’s signs boasting “Billions and Billions Served.”

One flight made the ubiquitous little airplane a world changer. In 1987, Mathias Rust, a young West German, rented a 172 from his flying club and flew it to the Soviet Union, setting down in Red Square in the heart of Moscow, a gesture he called building an “imaginary bridge” (“The Notorious Flight of Mathias Rust,” June/July 2005). Rust reasoned that if he could get through the Iron Curtain without being intercepted, “it would show that [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev was serious about new relations with the West.” Author Tom LeCompte noted that “Rust’s flight damaged the reputation of the vast Soviet military and enabled Gorbachev to remove the staunchest opponents to his reforms.” Soviet citizens had been told that if they let their military guard down for an instant, the West would annihilate them. “Rust’s flight,” observed LeCompte, “proved otherwise.”

Last year, Cessna announced it will build a 172 Skyhawk TD, for “Turbo Diesel,” that will burn Jet A fuel.

8. Learjet 23

"There were 'bizjets' that preceded the Learjet," says Air & Space founding editor George C. Larson, "but Bill Lear's idea for a smaller and simpler—but fast—aircraft really popularized the idea that businessmen ought to travel based on their own schedules."

The idea of jets dedicated to business travel first found incarnation in the early 1960s, with the introduction of the Lockheed JetStar and North American Sabreliner. Both were spinoffs of military jets. The Learjet likewise evolved from a fighter: the Swiss P16, which never made it into production.

Says Larson, now a senior editor at Business & Commercial Aviation : “The first Learjet was called the model 23 because it was certificated under Federal Aviation Regulations Part 23, for airplanes less than 12,500 pounds, and that made it easier to get through the Federal Aviation Agency’s approval process. Part 25, for heavier aircraft, was way harder. What was wonderful about the Part 23 thing is that the airplane was certificated with a max gross weight of 12,499 pounds. Oh, that Bill Lear.”

The Learjet 23 carried a crew of two and up to seven passengers. It had a range of 1,800 miles and cruised at 485 mph.

Larson notes that the jet succeeded in part because “the company sold the airplanes very effectively, offering to ‘recourse,’ or buy back, an airplane if things weren’t working out for the company that bought it. That brought a lot of individual entrepreneurs and people like [celebrity lawyer] F. Lee Bailey on board.”

The first production 23 was delivered in October 1964. Cost: $550,000. Says transportation writer John W. Smith: “A whole new class of aircraft had been created: the personal jet.”

9. Boeing 747

So magnificent a technological achievement was the Boeing 747 airliner that cultural historians have called it the 20th century’s cathedral. Nearly 40 years after its first flight, it remains, along with the photograph of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon, the most recognizable symbol of U.S. engineering brilliance. When it was introduced, airports the world over reinforced runways and made other infrastructure changes to receive it.

Still, it is not grandeur or technology or even impact on infrastructure that qualifies it for a place on this list. It was, after all, an evolutionary design. Its creators—Boeing president Bill Allen and Pan American Airways legend Juan Trippe—believed it was merely an interim answer to the demand that airlines would eventually meet with a revolutionary supersonic transport. The SST, they predicted, would relegate the 747 to hauling cargo.

But as wise as those two were, they could not see the future. And what qualifies the Boeing 747 as a world changer is that since it entered service in 1970, 96 carriers around the world have used the wide-bodies to fly 3.5 billion people to their destinations. Consider the impact of all of those trips: the business deals made or altered, the information exchanged, the exposures to other cultures, the families and friends reunited.

10. General Atomics MQ-1 Predator

In November 2002, a vehicle traveling in Yemen and believed to be carrying terrorists was destroyed by a Hellfire missile. What makes the kill historic is that it was executed by a flying robot. The first unmanned aerial vehicle to kill human beings, the MQ-1 Predator has changed the rules of warfare.

Built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the Predator has been operational in Bosnia since 1995 and now is flying missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Air Force deployed the latest version, the MQ-9 Reaper, to Afghanistan last October.

The Predator, which has an operational ceiling of 50,000 feet, is flown remotely by a “pilot” and two sensor operators housed in a trailer on the ground. The UAV has a nose camera, variable-aperture TV and infrared cameras, and a synthetic aperture radar to see through smoke, clouds, or haze. The RQ (R for “reconnaissance,” Q for “un-manned”) model flies long-endurance, medium-altitude surveillance missions, while the MQ (“multi-role”) version can carry up to four Hellfire II anti-armor missiles, two laser-guided bombs, and a 500-pound, GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition precision bomb.

Today, the United States and other countries are increasing their use of UAVs for civilian missions, such as law enforcement, border control, and ocean surveillance. Even Hollywood has discovered their potential, putting them to work as movie camera platforms. Here’s an aircraft that has changed not just the real world but the world of fantasy as well.

7 Bristol 188

In 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the X-1 and opened up a whole new possibility for jet flight. Soon, jets were pushing for faster and faster speeds, and the various air forces of the world needed research aircraft to test new flight characteristics. Unfortunately, most of these research planes ended in disappointment, but none failed as spectacularly as the Bristol 188.

This futuristic-looking airplane had a stainless steel fuselage to break Mach 2 speeds and test aerodynamics and equipment for the next generation of British fighters. RAF commanders wanted the Bristol 188 to spend a large part of its flight at Mach 2.6, where the skin of the airframe would reach 300 degrees Celsius (570 °F). Because of that difficult requirement, Bristol built the 188 with all-new techniques and fitted it with the most powerful engines available at the time. When completed, the Bristol 188 was a long, narrow airplane that earned the nickname &ldquoThe Flaming Pencil.&rdquo

From the beginning, the Bristol 188 had problems. The fuel tanks had a hard time holding fuel and would leak during flight, severely limiting the flight time. Flying the test airplane was extremely difficult. The 188 had a takeoff speed of 480 kilometers per hour (300 mph), which is high for any airplane. To get in the air, the Flaming Pencil needed a very long runway, which only made the leaking fuel problems worse. Due to the difficulty of flying the plane, test pilot Godfrey Auty earned the superlative &ldquomost likely to eject in the coming year&rdquo from his fellow test pilots. The final nail in the coffin for the Bristol 188 was that it stubbornly refused to actually reach Mach 2, rendering the project completely useless. Engineers proposed various solutions to the speed problem, but by that time, the RAF had sunk £20 million into a useless airplane, and the government pulled the plug.

Tupolev Tu-95 bomber (Soviet Union/Russia)

After adapting jet propulsion to several piston-engine airframes, Tupolev in 1952 introduced the Tu-16 (“Badger”), a medium-range bomber that featured swept wings and light alloy construction. A team under Aleksandr A. Arkhangelsky, longtime associate of company cofounder Andrey Tupolev, designed the Tu-95 (“Bear”), a huge turboprop bomber that first flew in 1954 and became one of the most durable military aircraft ever built and one of the longest-lived aircraft in the Soviet strategic arsenal. Russia still operates more than 50 Tu-95 aircraft as cruise-missile carriers.

Civilian design improvements

When more drastic changes came, they emerged not from military requirements but from civilian air racing, particularly the international seaplane contests for the coveted Schneider Trophy. Until the appearance of variable-pitch propellers in the 1930s, the speed of landplanes was limited by the lengths of existing runways, since the flat pitch of high-speed propellers produced poor takeoff acceleration. Seaplanes, with an unlimited takeoff run, were not so constrained, and the Schneider races, contested by national teams with government backing, were particularly influential in pushing speeds upward. During the 1920s the Curtiss company built a remarkable series of high-speed racing biplanes for the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy. These were powered by the innovative D-12, a 12-cylinder liquid-cooled engine, also of Curtiss design, that set international standards for speed and streamlining. One of the Curtiss planes, an R3C-2 piloted by Lieut. James Doolittle, won the 1925 Schneider race with a speed of 232.5 miles (374.1 km) per hour—in sharp contrast to the winning speed of 145.62 miles (234.3 km) per hour in 1922, before the Curtiss machines took part in the event. The influence of the Curtiss engine extended to Europe when British manufacturer C.R. Fairey, impressed with the streamlining made possible by the D-12, acquired license rights to build the engine and designed a two-seat light bomber around it. The Fairey Fox, which entered service in 1926, advanced the speed of Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers by 50 miles (80 km) per hour and was faster than contemporary fighters. Nor were British engine manufacturers idle when the U.S. Army and Navy standardized on air-cooled radial engines in the 1920s, Curtiss ceased developing liquid-cooled engines, but British engine designers, partly inspired by the D-12, embarked on a path that was to produce the superlative Rolls-Royce Merlin.

The year that Doolittle won the Schneider Trophy, an even more revolutionary design appeared—the S.4 seaplane designed by R.J. Mitchell of the British Supermarine Company. A wooden monoplane with unbraced wings, the S.4 set new standards for streamlining, but it crashed from wing flutter before it could demonstrate its potential. Nevertheless, it was the progenitor of a series of monoplanes that won the trophy three times, giving Britain permanent possession in 1931. The last of these, the S.6B, powered by a liquid-cooled Rolls-Royce racing engine with in-line cylinders, later raised the world speed record to more than 400 miles (640 km) per hour. The S.6B’s tapered fuselage and broad, thin, elliptical wings were clearly evident in Mitchell’s later and most famous design, the Spitfire.

In the United States the Thompson Trophy, awarded to the winner of unlimited-power closed-circuit competitions at the National Air Races, was won in 1929 for the first time by a monoplane, the Travel Air “R” designed by J. Walter Beech. Powered by the Wright Cyclone, a 400-horsepower radial engine with a streamlined NACA cowling that contributed 40 miles (65 km) to its maximum speed of 235 miles (375 km) per hour, the “R” handily defeated the far more powerful Curtiss biplanes flown by the army and navy. Embarrassed, the military withdrew from racing—and the army soon ordered its first monoplane fighter, the Boeing P-26. In 1935 the industrialist Howard Hughes set a world landplane speed record of 352 miles (563 km) per hour in a racer designed to his own specifications and powered by a 1,000-horsepower twin-row radial engine built by Pratt & Whitney. The Hughes H-1 was a low-wing monoplane built with unbraced wings with a “stressed-skin” metal covering that bore stress loads and thereby permitted a reduction in weight of the internal structure. These features, along with a flush-riveted, butt-joined aluminum fuselage, an enclosed cockpit, and power-driven retractable landing gear folding flush into the wing, anticipated the configuration, appearance, and performance of the fighters of World War II.

Possible explanations for UFO sightings and alien abductions

UFO reports have varied widely in reliability, as judged by the number of witnesses, whether the witnesses were independent of each other, the observing conditions (e.g., fog, haze, type of illumination), and the direction of sighting. Typically, witnesses who take the trouble to report a sighting consider the object to be of extraterrestrial origin or possibly a military craft but certainly under intelligent control. This inference is usually based on what is perceived as formation flying by sets of objects, unnatural—often sudden—motions, the lack of sound, changes in brightness or color, and strange shapes.

That the unaided eye plays tricks is well known. A bright light, such as the planet Venus, often appears to move. Astronomical objects can also be disconcerting to drivers, as they seem to 𠇏ollow” the car. Visual impressions of distance and speed of UFOs are also highly unreliable because they are based on an assumed size and are often made against a blank sky with no background object (clouds, mountains, etc.) to set a maximum distance. Reflections from windows and eyeglasses produce superimposed views, and complex optical systems, such as camera lenses, can turn point sources of light into apparently saucer-shaped phenomena. 

Such optical illusions and the psychological desire to interpret images are known to account for many visual UFO reports, and at least some sightings are known to be hoaxes. Radar sightings, while in certain respects more reliable, fail to discriminate between artificial objects and meteor trails, ionized gas, rain, or thermal discontinuities in the atmosphere.

𠇌ontact events,” such as abductions, are often associated with UFOs because they are ascribed to extraterrestrial visitors. However, the credibility of the ETH as an explanation for abductions is disputed by most psychologists who have investigated this phenomenon. They suggest that a common experience known as “sleep paralysis” may be the culprit, as this causes sleepers to experience a temporary immobility and a belief that they are being watched.


  1. ↑ The muscle-to-machine power paradigm shift is discussed in Travers, Tim: The Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front and the Emergence of Modern Warfare, 1900-1918, London 1987.
  2. ↑ The shift from two- to three-dimensional warfare is discussed in Bailey, Jonathan B.A.: The First World War and the Birth of the Modern Style of Warfare, The Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, Camberley 1996.
  3. ↑ The transition from the contact battle to the deep battle is discussed in Zabecki, David T.: The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War, London 2006.
  4. ↑ Corum, James S.: The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform, Lawrence 1992, p. 18.
  5. ↑ Dupuy, Trevor N.: A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945, New York 1977, p. 169.
  6. ↑ Herwig, Holger: The Dynamics of Necessity: German Military Policy During the First World War, in: Millett, Alan R./Murray, Williamson: Military Effectiveness, Volume I: The First World War, Boston 1988, pp. 94-95.
  7. ↑ Balck, William: Development of Tactics—World War, Bell, Harry (trans.), Fort Leavenworth 1922, p. 129.
  8. ↑ Theobeck, Kurt: Erfahrungen und Lehren des Weltkriegs 1914 bis 1918 auf Waffentechnichem und Taktischem Gebit (12 April 1920), Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv, Freiburg, Germany, File RH 12-2/94.
  9. ↑ Bailey, Jonathan B.A.: Field Artillery and Firepower, Annapolis 2003, pp. 123-150.
  10. ↑ Bloch, Jan de: The Wars of the Future, in: Bloch, Jean de: Jean de Bloch: Selected Articles, Fort Leavenworth 1993, pp. 1-40.
  11. ↑ Strachan, Hew: The First World War, Volume I: To Arms, New York 2001, pp. 1005-1014 Herwig, Holger: Germany and the ‘Short-War’ Illusion: Toward a New Interpretation?, in: The Journal of Military History 66/3 (2002), pp. 681-693.
  12. ↑ Lupfer, Timothy T.: The Dynamics of Doctrine: Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War, Leavenworth Papers 4, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas July 1981, p. 2.
  13. ↑ Lucas, Pascal: The Evolution of Tactical Ideas in France and Germany During the War of 1914-1918, Kieffer, P.V. (trans.), Fort Leavenworth 1925, p. 6 (French publication, Paris 1923) Griffith, Paddy: Forward into Battle: Fighting Tactics From Waterloo to the Near Future, Novato 1991, pp. 84-94.
  14. ↑ Holmes, Richard: The Western Front, London 1999, pp. 30-35.
  15. ↑ Travers, The Killing Ground 1987, pp. 48-55, 62-78.
  16. ↑ Lucas, The Evolution of Tactical Ideas 1925, p. 87.
  17. ↑ Ibid., p. 105.
  18. ↑ Wynne, Graeme C.: If Germany Attacks, London 1940, pp. 57-58 Lucas, The Evolution of Tactical Ideas 1925, pp. 38, 109.
  19. ↑ Gudmundsson, Bruce I.: Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1919, Westport 1989, pp. 47-53.
  20. ↑ Ibid., pp. 77-79, 96 Lupfer, The Dynamics of Doctrine 1981, p. 43.
  21. ↑ House, Jonathan M.: Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization, Fort Leavenworth 1984, p. 35.
  22. ↑ Wynne, If Germany Attacks 1940, p. 295 Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg 1992, p. 9.
  23. ↑ Oberste Heeresleitung, Der Angriff im Stellungskrieg, in: Ludendorff, Erich: Urkunden der Obersten Heersleitung über ihre Tätigkeit 1916-1918, Berlin 1921, pp. 641-666.
  24. ↑ Lucas, The Evolution of Tactical Ideas 1925, pp. 132, 138 Balck, Development of Tactics 1922, p. 266.
  25. ↑ Travers, The Killing Ground 1987, p. 260 Balck, Development of Tactics 1922, p. 264.
  26. ↑ For a complete assessment of Bruchmüller see Zabecki, David T.: Steel Wind: Colonel Georg Bruchmüller and the Birth of Modern Artillery, Westport 1994.
  27. ↑ Bruchmüller, Georg: Die Deutsche Artillerie in den Durchbruchschlachten des Weltkriegs, 2nd ed., Berlin 1922, p. 80.
  28. ↑ Bruchmüller, Georg, Die Deutsche Artillerie in den Durchbruchschlachten des Weltkriegs, 1st ed., Berlin 1921, pp. 34-40.
  29. ↑ Bruchmüller, Durchbruchschlachten 1922, pp. 74-75.
  30. ↑ Bruchmüller, Durchbruchschlachten 1921, p. 30 Bruchmüller, Durchbruchschlachten 1922, pp. 93-97.
  31. ↑ Bernhardi, Friedrich von: How Germany Makes War, New York 1914, p. 82.
  32. ↑ Thaer, Albrecht von: Generalstabsdienst an der Front und in der O.H.L., Göttingen 1958, p. 220.
  33. ↑ Ludendorff, Erich: Meine Kriegserinnerungen 1914-1918, Berlin 1919, p. 462.
  34. ↑ Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg 1992, p. 23.
  35. ↑ Fuller, J.F.C.: Tanks in the Great War, London 1920, p. 171.
  36. ↑ Kuhl, Hermann von: Entstehung, Durchführung und Zusammenbruch der Offensive von 1918, Berlin 1927, p. 70.
  37. ↑ Essame, Hubert: The Battle for Europe 1918, London 1972, p. 2.
  38. ↑ Terraine, John: White Heat: The New Warfare 1914-18, London 1982, p. 303.
  39. ↑ Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg 1992, p. 15.
  40. ↑ Herwig, The Dynamics of Necessity, in: Millett/Murray, Military Effectiveness 1988, p. 96 Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg 1992, p. 15.
  41. ↑ Ibid., pp. 13-15.
  42. ↑ See Dohuet, Gulio: The Command of the Air (1921), reprint, Birmingham, Alabama 2009.
  43. ↑ Lucas, The Evolution of Tactical Ideas 1925, p. 68.
  44. ↑ Oetting, Dirk W.: Auftragstaktik: Geschichte und Gegenwart einer Führungskonzeption, Bonn 1993.
  45. ↑ Terraine, White Heat 1982, p. 262.
  46. ↑ Haig, Douglas: War Diaries and Letters: 1914-1918, Sheffield, Gary/Bourne, John (eds.), London 2005, p. 301.
  47. ↑ Otis, Glenn K.: The Ground Commander's View, in: Newell, Clayton R. / Krause, Michael D. (eds.): On Operational Art, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, D.C. 1994, p. 31.
  48. ↑ Menning, Bruce W: Operational Art’s Origins, in: Military Review (September 1997), p. 35.
  49. ↑ For a thorough analysis of the German 1918 offensives see: Zabecki, David T: The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War, London 2006.
  50. ↑ Glantz, David: The Intellectual Dimension of Soviet (Russian) Operational Art, in: McKercher, B.J.C./Hennessy, Michael A. (eds.): The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War, Westport 1996, p. 128.
  51. ↑ Menning, Operational Art’s Origins 1997, p. 37.
  52. ↑ Heeresdienstvorschrift 300, Truppenführung, Berlin 1933, pp. 46-49. See also the modern English translation: Condell, Bruce / Zabecki, David T. (trans. and eds.): On the German Art of War: Truppenführung, Boulder, Colorado 2001.
  53. ↑ Bailey, Birth of the Modern Style of Warfare 1996, p. 3.


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