Seven Essential Aviation Pioneers
While the aviation age began early in the 20th Century with the flight of the Wright Brothers, the story of aviation stretches back hundreds of years and features a colorful cast of characters. This guide, presented by Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, introduces seven essential aviators, adventurers, and inventors who have made today’s flight-powered world possible.
The Montgolfier Brothers
Born in pre-Revolutionary France to a paper mill owner, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne were responsible for the first successful manned flights in human history in their globe aérostatique, or hot-air balloon. Joseph-Michel first began to form the idea for the hot-air balloon while watching laundry dry in front of a fire. The hot air would form pockets under the cloth and billow upwards. Soon he and his brother were experimenting with different materials, making small balloons that they tested indoors, then outdoors. Once they had a working prototype, they began to scale up. Their first public demonstration took place in the marketplace in their hometown of Annonay on June 4th, 1783. The unmanned craft flew more than 6,000 feet. On October 15, 1783, they successfully launched a balloon with Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis d’Arlandes in a passenger basket. The stage was set for the first aerial age.
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin
Several different airships were developed throughout the 19th Century. But Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s aluminium-framed airship–later known as the Zeppelin–was the first truly commercial aircraft, capable of carrying multiple passengers and making mail deliveries. Zeppelins also performed reconnaissance missions and bombing raids during World War I, although their stately speed meant they were easy targets for anti-aircraft guns. The Hindenburg Disaster in 1935 effectively ended the Zeppelin era. However, the principles of Zeppelin construction–a light airframe–were already being adapted and perfected for the next generation of powered aircraft.
The Wright Brothers
Many other early aviators were testing gliders and engine-powered craft when brothers Orville and Wilbur began their investigations. Beginning in 1899, the brothers built, tested, and discarded several different prototypes. While other inventors were focused on the power of a craft’s engine, the Wrights were more concerned with control of the aircraft. Their early models of kites and gliders, tested in their home-made wind tunnel, led them to develop a fixed-wing aircraft that was capable of being steered in three directions, thanks to the addition of a rear tail rudder, warped wings, and an elevator. Additionally, they developed their own four-cylinder engine and designed a propeller. The brothers conducted the first successful powered aircraft flight at the Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, on December 17th, 1903. The aviation age was now truly under way.
Born in 1902, Lindbergh was probably learning to walk when the Wrights took off at Kill Devil Hills. As a young man, he displayed a fascination with automobiles and motorbikes. It was only natural that he should move on to flying. In 1922 he abandoned his studies at the University of Wisconsin and enrolled in flight school, first in Nebraska, and then in San Antonio, Texas. After stints as a “barnstormer” – a stunt flyer–Lindbergh became one of the first full-time U.S. Mail pilots, covering the Chicago-St. Louis run. At this time, a prominent New York businessman, Raymond Orteig, was offering $25,000 to the first pilot who could make a non-stop trip between New York and Paris. Lindbergh began to gather support and resources. He worked with Ryan Airlines, Inc., to develop a single-engine monoplane to suit his needs. It was named The Spirit of St. Louis, and Lindbergh successfully flew it from Roosevelt Field to Paris in 33 hours on May 20-21, 1927. The success of his flight turned Lindbergh into an international celebrity. Soon he was making tours of the U.S., promoting the commercialization of aviation. He married Anne Morrow in 1929, and she became one of the earliest woman aviators, acting as his co-pilot and navigator as they charted commercial airline flight paths. He would spend the remainder of his life working to promote the development of civilian and military aviation, including commercial air travel, which he had made possible with his historic trans-Atlantic flight.
On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart was nearly three-quarters of the way through her historic circumnavigation of the globe. She was in radio contact with the U.S. Coast Guard Ship Itasca, which was waiting to guide her in to land on Howland Island, a speck of land halfway between Australia and Hawaii. She was having difficulty locating the island, and she was running out of fuel. “We are on the line 157 337,” Earhart radioed. “We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.” But that was the last anyone would hear from her. She had vanished. The search for the truth about Amelia Earhart has captured the imagination of aviation enthusiasts for more than 70 years. But her career prior to that point is often overshadowed by the tragedy of her disappearance. The truth is that Earhart was a pioneering aviator whose achievements paved the way for other female flying aces–and for the commercial airline industry we see as routine today. Most famously, she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air in 1928, when she crewed for Wilmer Stultz’s flight. Then, she made the crossing again in 1932–this time as the pilot. Landing in a pasture near Derry, Ireland, she was asked, “Have you flown far?” “From America,” was Earhart’s casual reply. Later, she would become the first pilot to make the 2,400-mile solo flight from Hawaii to California, to solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey. By the time she set off on her ill-fated journey, Earhart had been renowned for years as both a skilled, daring pilot, and as an investor in the growing aviation industry. She was not just a role model for women, but for everyone who loved to fly.
Sir Frank Whittle
Armed combat between airplanes had become routine during World War I, but there was a problem: piston engines. These engines became prone to failure at high speeds, and there was no way to increase the size of the engines further. A 22-year-old Royal Air Force pilot named Frank Whittle was the first to see the solution: a gas jet turbine engine, based on the turbine engines used for centuries in factories and industrial machinery. He applied for his patent in 1930, and set to work studying engineering, gathering investors and finding the resources to make his idea a reality. By the spring of 1937, he had successfully built and bench-tested the first functional jet engine. The first Gloster E28/A29 Pioneer was successfully flown in 1941. Adopted, adapted, and refined by other countries, the jet engine soon became the powerplant of choice for both military and passenger aircraft.
After the war, countries with jet engine capabilities began to test and refine the new technology. In the United States, this led to an experimental military rocket plane built in collaboration with Bell Aircraft, the Bell X-1. A working prototype of the X-1 was being tested as early as January 1946, with a goal of taking the plane supersonic: faster than the speed of sound. It was not known at the time whether a fixed-wing aircraft–or its pilot–could survive breaking the sound barrier. The USAAF chose a seasoned fighter pilot, Charles “Chuck” Yeager, who had flown 64 combat missions during WWII. Two nights before his attempt at the sound barrier, Yeager fell off a horse and broke two ribs. He kept the injury a secret, seeking treatment from a veterinarian, and reported for duty on October 14, 1947, as planned. The flight was a success: in spite of the pain he was in, Yeager took the X-1 to Mach 1.07 at 45,000 feet. In 1997 and 2012, on the 50th and 65th anniversaries of his historic flight, General Yeager again flew past Mach 1. Aged 89 when he made his most recent flight, Yeager has shown that the passion to fly never leaves a true aviator.