One of the fascinating things about the history of aviation is that it is so very compact. Okay, there were people trying to fly things, including themselves, a thousand years ago, but when it comes to real flying by real people in real aircraft, that has all happened within the last 150 years, which is merely a ripple on the surface of the ocean of history.
While we normally talk about things in very aviation-specific terms, like building better large engines, in this case, the hurdles we’ll discuss are broad barriers to invention, most of which human innovators face every time they invent something and then try to implement the technology into everyday life, as we saw with the invention of everything from electricity to modern agriculture.
So, here’s a list of those big hurdles aviation had to face and how the genius designers who came before us figured it out.
After something is invented, like electricity (and I’m not going to get into the invented vs. discovered debate), one needs to figure out how to make it useful. The whole alternating current vs. direct current debate was all about just that. How could people best put electricity to use in their everyday lives? In terms of airplanes, the question was, could plane makers build planes that were strong enough, safe enough and fast enough to make sense for regular people to fly? For a couple decades, the answer to that question evolved from “no” to “kind of.” World War I, for instance, saw wide deployment of aircraft to very little practical advantage. By World War II, it’s fair to say that aircraft decided the war in both the European and Pacific theaters.
Planes by the late ’30s were much more rugged than the feathery designs of the First World War, and the engines that powered them were not only far more powerful but far more reliable, to boot. The enabling technology—sorry, tube-and-rag fans—was the use of metal, most notably aluminum alloys, in the modern designs. This lightweight and super-strong material allowed planes to grow in size and capability, and these wartime gains transferred to peacetime aviation as the global conflict wound down.
Poster Plane For Practicality: Douglas DC-3.
Everyday Analog: Cellphones.
As mentioned above—and please remember that these hurdles aren’t neatly separate from each other—the goal of improving the reliability of airplanes was tied to developments in materials science. In this case, it was all about metallurgy and machine technology.
In fact, improvements in metallurgy have driven improvements throughout the history of aviation. The biggest bugaboo for airplanes, which will come as no surprise to those of us who are pilots, is the engines that power our planes. Recently, I watched a video of a DC-6 taking off from the fog in Anchorage. What I thought, honestly, was, that sound is amazing! And, what a beautiful plane! But mostly I was thinking, how the heck do they manage to keep all four of those double-row radials running at the same time? The engines, as you might know, are marvels at squeezing the very last ounce of practicality out of a technology, in this case, the radial engine, or, if you will, the internal combustion reciprocating engine. The only way those marvels happened and could have happened is that by the 1930s, metallurgy had improved to the point that such engines could work because the metals were stronger and more heat tolerant, and the tolerances of their manufacture were so much finer than even a decade before.
These improvements in materials and manufacturing led to turbine engines becoming reliable and practical options, and turbine engines changed everything.
Building airplanes fast enough and with enough range to make them practical long-distance transportation options wasn’t as tough a barrier as some of the others but only because the modes of transportation planes competed against set the bar so low. By the time large passenger jets came along, one could go coast to coast in the United States, a journey that would take several days in a train or an automobile, in mere hours. You better believe that the world beat a path to that mousetrap.
In terms of market appeal, small planes have been a much tougher sell. There are so many things that we pilots literally don’t care about (or at least are willing to put up with), like not being able to stand up and walk around or visit the facilities, not to mention the din of most of the planes we fly that is just about impossible to design out of them. I should say, at least until now, those things have been impossible to overcome. In time, perhaps, inventors will tame them all. Well, maybe not all of them.
This is a major factor in the success of any technology that aims for mainstream market acceptance. Examples? Electrical outlets that won’t occasionally send you flying back across the room, automobiles you don’t have to hand crank, and computers you can use without knowing how to code. With airplanes, there are so many hurdles to user-friendliness, it’s hard to know where to start. Those of us who learned to fly in Pipers and Cessnas and Diamonds have no idea how squirrelly antique airplanes are. I’ve flown a few that tested the limits of my piloting ability to keep straight and level. Would I get used to flying such planes? I have faith that I would.
But that begs the question, why would any airplane maker build a plane that you had to fight to maintain control? The only answer I can come up with is, they didn’t know any better. Once technologies came about that effectively eliminated what we today think about as poor flying qualities, but which were once regarded simply as flying qualities, every respectable plane maker put them into their designs. I grew up driving stick shifts, but it’s no surprise that they are about as rare as hand cranks on the front of the hood.
I’m proud that I know how to drive a stick, though, honestly, it’s so second nature that it doesn’t feel any more difficult than driving a car with an automatic stick shift. But many folks believe that the craft of flying, the stick and rudder stuff, the taildragger skills, are a central part of the experience. But the immediate and long-lasting success of models that eliminated all of those things, like the Cessna 172 and Piper PA-28, shows that user-friendliness sells.
Breaking The Believability Barrier
There are certain technologies so revolutionary they boggle the contemporary imagination. Recordings of the human voice, movies, television, nuclear bombs and the internet are all perfect examples.
One might argue that the Wright brothers broke this barrier with their first flight in 1903, but I’d disagree. People saw birds fly and planes and motorcycles go fast—not that the Wright Flyer was at all fast—but what people never saw was a rocket ship going to the moon or planes so fast they broke the speed of sound like the cracking of a bullwhip. We still have some believability barriers to breach. Quiet engines. Super-fast small planes. Supersonic bizjets. Self-flying planes. Will we get there? My money’s on “yes.”
Do you want more Aviation Breakthroughs, Oddities, Milestones? Enjoy “Five Weird Airplanes That Were Surprisingly Popular.”