12 Aug 2013

Three Military Aviation Advances Used in Civilian Aviation

Military conflict has always accelerated the development of new technologies. This is because people tend to make an extra effort to find solutions when life and death are on the line, and because countries are almost always willing to spend money on protecting their interests. Advances can include weaponry, such as the Manhattan Project which led to the development of the nuclear bomb, or the first submarines deployed during the American Civil War.

However, civilian technologies can also benefit from innovations spurred by military action. Civilian aviation has benefited tremendously from technologies developed or perfected for military uses. Here are three important civilian aviation advances that have their roots in the military.


RADAR—short for RAdio Detection And Ranging—was probably the single most significant technology to emerge from the Second World War. The basic principle of radar detection was based on experiments done in the late 1800s by German scientist Heinrich Hertz, which showed that metallic objects could bounce or reflect radio waves. In the early 20th Century, a simple radar device was invented to prevent collisions between ships in the fog.

Throughout the 1930s, several countries raced in secret to put this principle to work for their ships and aircraft. Radar stations were placed all around the coast of the United Kingdom to detect incoming German bombers, and allied aircraft had radar systems on board to help them spot enemy planes.

After the war, radar was put to work in civilian aviation, allowing air traffic controllers to guide planes in poor weather conditions or manage traffic patterns near busy airports. Weather radar also grew out of WWII radar systems, thanks to the observations of pilots, who noted that storm systems caused “noise” on their radar screens.

Medevac Flights

Medevac flights—medical evacuations—were carried out during the First World War using airplanes. However, today’s helicopter evacuations have their roots in the Second World War. United States Army pilots operating in the Pacific Theater used helicopters to evacuate injured troops from a battle near Manila in 1945. By the time of the Korean War, helicopters were being specifically fitted for medical evacuations.

Medivac flights using helicopters did not expand into the civilian arena until the late 1960s. The first part of the United States to put medical helicopters to work was the state of Mississippi in 1969. Using money granted by the federal government, Project CARESOM tested the feasibility of using helicopters to assist in medical emergencies. Today, medevac flights are commonly used by state police departments, coast guards, and rural hospitals for transferring patients quickly.

Jet Engines

As military aviation developed throughout the 1920s and 1930s, engineers began to realize that there were limitations to the performance of piston engines as speeds approached 500 MPH. Turbine engines had been in use for factory purposes since the late 1700s, and during the 1920s inventors began to adapt them for aircraft. The first jet airplanes were not put into service by military forces until close to the end of WWII, however.

While jet planes could achieve tremendous speeds, they were extremely fuel-inefficient and continued to be used mainly by the military until further technological breakthroughs during the 1960s and 1970s. Most commercial airliners nowadays are powered by jet engines.