07 Nov 2013

Four Aircraft That Changed the World

The dawn of the aviation age during the early 20th Century had a tremendous impact on the course of human history. The Wright Brothers’ first flight set in motion a chain of development that eventually led to man landing on the moon and sending spacecraft to other worlds. Some of the links in this chain of development are stronger than others. This article, presented by Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, looks at four aircraft that opened up new possibilities in aviation.

The Spirit of St. Louis – 1927
While the Wright Brothers’ Flyers are incalculably important to aviation history, it’s Charles Lindbergh’s custom-built Ryan single-engine plane that opened the door to the real aviation age. He flew from New York to Paris on May 20-21, 1927, winning instant worldwide fame and the $25,000 Orteig Prize. Prior to Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing, airplanes had been regarded as toys or as weapons. Now there was the possibility that people could fly across oceans in hours rather than spend weeks on a ship. Following Lindbergh’s achievement, there was a rush of investment and invention. Larger passenger planes began to be developed, and long-distance aviators (including Lindbergh himself) began to chart more potential flight paths around the world. The stage was being set for mass air travel.

The Junkers F-13 – 1919
This less well-known aircraft, developed by the German Hugo Junkers, was the first passenger aircraft, and had the run of the skies from 1919-1934. It was the first plane to use modern, all-metal construction techniques, carrying up to four passengers in a closed, heated cabin—although the pilot’s cockpit was only somewhat sheltered, having no side windows. Furthermore, its cantilevered wings also dispensed with wing struts, which had been a feature of early airplanes since the Wrights. When restrictions were placed on Germany’s ability to build aircraft as a result of the treaty that ended World War I, Junkers licensed the design of his plane to other countries and companies, including the United States Post Office. By the time it was withdrawn from service in 1938, the Junkers F-13 had been in service in more than a dozen countries.

The Douglas DC-3 – 1936
The Douglas DC-3 was the first passenger aircraft that is similar to the ones we know today. It was commissioned in 1934 by the founder of American Airlines, who wanted a plane with railroad-type sleeping accommodations. The luxurious DC-3 seated 28 passengers for short day flights. For overnight flights, the pairs of seats could be folded down to form double beds, allowing for 14 passengers on longer journeys. Private air travel up until the DC-3 was largely kept afloat by government subsidies. The DC-3 was the first plane that made commercial air travel truly profitable, allowing the airlines to rely less and less on government assistance. It is the direct ancestor of today’s Boeing 747s and other mass-transit aircraft. The DC-3 also played a major role in military operations when it was re-designed and manufactured as the C-47 transport. C-47s saw action in World War II, Korea, and even Vietnam. In fact, a small number of DC-3s are still in service today, decades after the last orders were delivered.

Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe – 1944
During the final years of World War II, an arms race was in progress. One of these was the race to complete the atom bomb. The other was the race to put a functional jet fighter into service. Jet engines had been in development since the late 1920s in England, when an RAF engineer air officer named Frank Whittle presented plans for a gas turbine-powered aircraft. Hans von Ohain, in Germany, began developing jet engines during the early 1930s, having arrived at the idea independently. It was the Germans who would first put a jet fighter into combat in April 1944, with the Messerschmitt ME 262 Schwalbe. (The Allied jet, the Gloster Meteor, entered service three months later.) This proof-of-concept aircraft brought the world into the jet age, and would lead to the development of supersonic flight, space rockets, and more.