15 Most Important Events in Air History Of All Time

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Despite the fact that powered flight is little more than 100 years old, air history is a huge subject, for a large amount has happened in a very short time. We have gone from the very idea of man being able to fly being just a dream, to breaking the sound barrier, using air travel frequently for vacations, and even venturing into space.

Here we will simply try to look at the most important events in aviation, plus their impact and why we remember them. We will start with some landmarks in very early flying.

Balloon Pilots and Other Non-Powered Flying

Many people tend to think that aviation history began when Wilbur and Orville Wright first flew a powered airplane in 1903. But in fact it started a very long time before that. Indeed, non-powered flying has a long and fascinating history. Let us take a look at some of the details of it.

The Dawn of Flight

Around 1000BC kites were invented in China. So was this flight? Some might not think so, but it was perhaps the very beginning. It enabled people to realize that an object could escape gravity and leave the ground, and all later developments arose out of this.

A King Tries to Fly

The next important event involved a man actually trying to fly by his own efforts. In 852 BC the English King Bladud was apparently killed while attempting to fly. The details are apparently lost in the mists of time, but this seems to be the first real attempt of someone to strap on wings and fly. But it was not the last, and after this history is full of attempts to leave the ground and take flight.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci is of course best known as an artist. But he was actually a typical ‘Renaissance Man, able to turn his abilities into many different skills. From 1485 to 1500 he drew a number of designs of proposed flying machines. However, he kept these hidden, and they were not found until around 400 years after his death.

The First Balloon Flight

First Baloon Flight

In 1783 the first untethered manned hot air balloon flight was made in Paris, France, in a balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers.

The First Gliders

In 1709, Bartolomeu Laurenço de Gusmao designed a model glider, the first of its kind. Then in the 1840s, George Cayley’s biplane glider design was published. And in 1895, Otto Lilienthal made the first flights in biplane gliders.

The Early Powered Pilots

Powered flying began with the historic first flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright, in 1903. In September of that year, the Wright brothers arrived in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to prepare for their historic flight.

On December 14th they flipped a coin to see which one of them would be the first to attempt the flight. Wilbur won, but his flight was unsuccessful. However, on December 17th the ‘Wright Flyer lifted into the air at 10:35 am. That first flight lasted only twelve seconds and covered a distance of just 121 feet. But it was the first powered, manned, heavier-than-air, controlled flight, and represented the real dawn of powered aviation.

Flyers after the Wright Brothers – The Record Breakers

After this, things developed surprisingly quickly, with a number of ‘ aviation firsts’ taking place in quick succession. Here is a selection of them, but there were many others…

September 2nd,1910 – Blanche Stuart Scott became the first American woman to fly solo.

September 29, 1911 – Walter Brookins set an American record by flying 192 miles from Chicago to Springfield, Illinois, making two stops.

April 16, 1912 – American Harriet Quimby became the first woman to pilot a plane across the English Channel.

April 1914 – The first American use of aircraft in military operations by the navy, in operations against Mexico at Vera Cruz.

September 2, 1916 – Airplanes in flight communicated with each other directly by radio for the first time.

September 28, 1924 – The first round-the-world flight was completed in Seattle, Washington by three Douglas World Cruisers of the US Army Air Service.

May 20-21, 1927 – the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic by Charles A. Lindbergh, in the ‘Spirit of St Louis’..

June 17, 1928 – Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic. Then in 1937, she began a world flight attempt in a Lockheed Electra. But on July 2, 1937, Amelia was lost en route to Howland Island from Lae, New Guinea.

The Barnstormers

BarnStroming

In the 1920s and on into the 1930s, many people started flying, and ‘barnstorming’ became a popular occupation. This involved doing any kind of aerobatic or daredevil stunt flying, and later on, taking up passengers to do this as well. Some pilots even managed to make a living out of it.

Some of these pilots formed ‘flying circuses’, with several pilots performing amazing stunts. One of these circuses was run by Jimmy Angel, who later became famous for discovering Angel Falls in South America when he flew over the falls by sheer chance.

Bush Pilots Open Up the World

In the 1930s, bush pilots helped develop Alaska and the far north of Canada, flying in some extremely challenging conditions. One of the best known of these was Robert Campbell Reeve, who in 1937 set a world record for the highest ski-plane landing (8,750 feet), but the snow was too soft for his Fairchild 51 to take off again.

After waiting five days for the glacier to freeze, he managed to get airborne but then had to dive for hundreds of feet before he could gain enough airspeed to level and climb. He became known as ‘the glacier pilot’ for making more than 2,000 glacier landings. In 1949, he founded Reeve Aleutian Airlines, which his family ran until 2000.

The Airlines: The most important events in passenger flying

Passenger flying started very early on in the history of aviation. In 1914, the world’s first scheduled passenger airline service took off, operating between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida. The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line was a short-lived endeavor – only four months – but it paved the way for today’s daily transcontinental flights, and as such was an extremely important event in air history.

The First Airline

KLM Passenger Aircraft

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, known simply as KLM, is the oldest airline in the world. Established in 1919, Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij (you can see why ‘KLM’ is preferable) had its inaugural flight the following year

Other airlines followed quickly, once it became clear that this mode of travel was here to stay.

Expansion And Rationalization Over The Years

By the 1920s small airlines were struggling to compete, and a time of rationalization began, followed by larger airlines being formed. Germany’s Lufthansa was formed by the amalgamation of two airlines during this time, in 1926. In the 1930s, this company, along with KLM and Air France, began a series of long flights to their colonies in Africa and elsewhere.

Things continued in this way for a number of years. But airline flying was still expensive, out of reach for many ordinary people. However, there were a few important events during these years.

January 22nd, 1970 was the dawn of the Jumbo jet age. The Boeing 747 was something different for a passenger flight. With the first flight from New York to London, Pan Am’s Clipper Young America ushered in a new age – the era of wide-body aircraft. Developed by Boeing to maximize space and revenue, the ‘Jumbo’ extended the golden age of air travel. With increased capacity and lowered costs, the 747 also helped make the air travel experience accessible to less wealthy travelers.

The next major development was that of supersonic flight. Concorde, the first supersonic passenger-carrying commercial aircraft, was built jointly by aircraft manufacturers in Great Britain and France. Its first passenger flight was on January 21st, 1976, and it was flown on routes all over the world.

However, the aircraft’s nose and expense limited its service. Routes were reduced, eventually leaving New York City as the only regular destination. After a well-publicized crash, Concorde operations were finally ceased by Air France in May 2003 and by British Airways in October 2003.

Budget Airlines

The next big change was the rise in low-cost or budget airlines. This began in the US with Southwest Airlines, which became profitable in 1973, and continued to remain so. This was swiftly followed by Freddie Laker with his budget Skytrain flights from the UK to the USA.

Then the 1990s saw the rise of UK low-budget pioneers Easyjet and Ryanair, operating from London’s previously neglected Stansted airport. Both of these gradually began to offer cheap flights to a large number of destinations across Europe.

In Asia, Malaysia’s AirAsia rapidly expanded to become the major carrier in the region, operating right across the subcontinent and opening up the possibility of flying to many Asians who previously would never have considered it due to the cost.

AirAsia’s success soon generated a host of rivals, notably Singapore’s Tiger Airways and Australia’s Jetstar. Both of these airlines are still competing aggressively with each other on Asia to Australia routes as well as within the domestic Australian market, which is dominated by the low-cost Virgin Blue.

Military Aviation

Military Aviation

The possibility of using aircraft for military purposes was noticed very early on. When the first practical aircraft were produced, in the form of hot-air and hydrogen balloons in 1783, they were adopted quickly for military duties, though never to any large extent due to the inherent limitations of non-powered aircraft. So true military aviation did not start until the development of the navigable airship in the late 19th century, and the powered airplane in the 20th century.

In 1909 the Wright brothers won a competition to sell the first military airplane in the world – a two-seat observation aircraft – to the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The wooden plane contained a 30–40 horsepower engine and used skids instead of wheels for its landing gear. It was known as the Wright Military Flyer. Check out our guide on Avionics Explained to find out which is best for your aircraft.

The First World War

Perhaps unsurprisingly, World War 1 brought a great deal of development in military aviation. Aviation enthusiasts were convinced that the refinement of airplanes would lead to greatly advanced military capabilities.

At first, airplanes merely provided a vertical battlefield perspective, replacing the balloons that had been used for this purpose for a number of years. When the enemy began to counter this advantage, aircraft began to be armed, air battles ensued, and dogfighting tactics were gradually developed. The regular Army was not that impressed, however, maintaining that aviation was peripheral to the serious business of ground warfare.

The Second World War

The Second World War Aviation

World War II was the supreme wake-up call for the aviation industry where military aviation was concerned. At the outset of the war, U.S. Army and Navy aircraft were inferior in almost every way to German and Japanese aircraft. But thanks to innovative engineers, by the later stages of the war, these aircraft had improved dramatically.

Many of the major developments took place in Europe. In the early 1930s, the jet engine was invented. Credit for this is usually given to Sir Frank Whittle of Great Britain and Dr. Hans von Ohain of Germany, whose engine was installed on a Heinkel He-178 and was the first to fly in 1939.

During the war, Germany, England, and America continued working on jet engines and the aircraft they would power. Hitler planned to develop a jet-powered bomber but finally had to settle for a fighter – the Messerschmitt Me-262, which was generally untouchable by allied propeller aircraft because of its speed.

Developments After the Second World War

After World War II, the future of military Aviation looked extremely bright. No idea or concept seemed too far-fetched to consider, and anything seemed possible. The Korean War ushered in the era of the jet fighter in military aviation. Supersonic fighters and new bombers were developed, and by about 60 years after Wilbur and Orville’s remarkable first powered flight, the golden age of military aviation had arrived.

Both the Cold War and the Vietnam War led to swift developments in military aviation, with bombers being specifically designed to carry nuclear weapons. Fighters, on the other hand, were designed for both conventional and nuclear warfare. New systems designed for use in Vietnam were later used in the conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Efforts to supplement conventional aircraft with vertical-takeoff systems were also underway. The British developed the Kestrel, which later became the Harrier aircraft used by the U.S. Marine Corps. Vertical-takeoff aircraft are not restricted to airfields and can therefore be dispersed to tactical advantage. In Russia, aircraft capable of competing with any of these were developed, such as The Sukhoi Su-27 and the MiG 29.

A Short History of Air Accidents

Unfortunately, ever since the dawn of aviation, some aircraft have been coming into unintentional contact with the ground, or in other words, crashing. Air crashes have formed an important part of the history of aviation, often leading to changes and developments that might not have otherwise taken place.

There are said to have been at least 208 aircraft crashes which are known to have resulted in ground fatalities. Of these, 63 have involved at least a dozen ground fatalities, 15 have involved at least 50 ground fatalities, and 3 have involved over 200 ground fatalities. Of course, these are probably omitting those taking place in wartime in which aircraft have been shot down or something similar.

We will take a look at some of the most important ones in terms of the changes in aviation practices resulting from them. 

Early Accidents

Wingfoot Crash

Early aviation was inherently dangerous. Most of the flights undertaken by the Wright @Brothers were not even expected to be safe, and crashes were common. The only reason for the few fatalities was the fact that early aircraft tended to fly very slowly. Here are some of the better-known early accidents.

July 21, 1919 – The Goodyear dirigible Wingfoot Air Express caught fire and crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Building in Chicago, Illinois, while carrying passengers to a local amusement park, Thirteen people were killed, three out of the five onboard and ten others on the ground, with 27 others on the ground being injured.

1922 April 7 – In the Picardie mid-air collision, a de Havilland DH.18A, G-EAWO, operated by Daimler Hire Ltd, collided with a Farman F.60 Goliath, F-GEAD, operated by Compagnie des Grands Express Aériens (CGEA), over the Thieulloy-St. Antoine road near Picardie, France, killing all seven people on both aircraft. This was the first mid-air collision of two airliners.

There were many more crashes like this, probably several every year during the 1920s and 1930s. But by the 1950s crashes were becoming less frequent and tended to be followed up by aviation accident investigators in different countries. And something was definitely learned from every one.

Collision Avoidance and Better Air Traffic Control

In the skies above the Grand Canyon on June 30, 1956, two planes that had recently taken off from Los Angeles International Airport – a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 headed to Chicago and a Trans World Airlines Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation on its way to Kansas City – collided. All 128 passengers and crew aboard both flights were killed.

The accident spurred a $250 million upgrade of the Air Traffic Control system, which was serious money in those days. And it worked, for there hasn’t been a collision between two airliners in the United States in 47 years. The crash also triggered the creation in 1958 of the Federal Aviation Agency (later Federal Aviation Administration) to oversee air safety.

However, further improvements would be implemented after a small private plane wandered into the Los Angeles terminal control area on August 31, 1986, striking an Aeromexico DC-9 and killing 86 people. The FAA subsequently required small aircraft entering control areas to use transponders, which are electronic devices that broadcast position and altitude to controllers.

Additionally, airliners were required to have TCAS II collision-avoidance systems, which detect potential collisions with other transponder-equipped aircraft and advise pilots to climb or dive in response. Since then, no small plane has collided with an airliner in flight in the U.S.

Cockpit Teamwork and CRM

On December 28, 1978, United Flight 173, a DC-8 approaching Portland, Oregon, with 181 passengers, circled near the airport for an hour as the crew tried in vain to sort out a landing gear problem. Although gently warned of the rapidly diminishing fuel supply by the flight engineer on board, the captain waited too long to begin his final approach. The DC-8 ran out of fuel and crashed in a suburb, killing ten people.

In response, United revamped its cockpit training procedures around the then-new concept of Cockpit Resource Management (CRM). Abandoning the traditional ‘the captain is god’ approach in airline hierarchy, CRM emphasized teamwork and communication among the crew, and has since become the industry standard.

Downdraft Detection and Dealing with Other Weather Phenomena

Delta Crash

As Delta Flight 191, a Lockheed L-1011 approached for landing at Dallas/Fort Worth airport on August 2nd, 1985, a thunderstorm lurked near the runway. Lightning flashed around the plane at 800 feet, and the jetliner encountered a microburst wind shear – a strong downdraft and abrupt shift in the wind that caused the plane to lose 54 knots of airspeed in a few seconds.

Sinking rapidly, the L-1011 hit the ground about a mile short of the runway, and bounced across a highway, crushing a vehicle and killing the driver. The plane then crashed into two huge airport water tanks. Onboard, 134 of 163 people were killed.

The crash triggered a 7-year NASA/FAA research effort, which led directly to radar wind-shear detectors becoming standard equipment on airliners in the mid-1990s. Only one wind-shear-related accident has occurred since.

Dealing with the Unexpected: Concorde Crash – Aircraft retired

An Air France Concorde jet crashed upon takeoff in Paris on July 25th, 2000, killing everyone on board as well as four people on the ground. The Concorde, the world’s fastest commercial jet, had enjoyed an exemplary safety record up to that point, with no crashes in the plane’s 31-year history.

Air France Flight 4590 left De Gaulle Airport for New York carrying nine crew members and 96 German tourists who were planning to take a cruise to Ecuador. Almost immediately after takeoff, however, the plane plunged to the ground near a hotel in Gonesse, France. A huge fireball erupted and all 105 people on the plane were killed immediately.

The Concorde fleet was grounded in the wake of this disaster while the cause was investigated. The Concorde, powered by four Rolls Royce turbojets, was able to cross the Atlantic Ocean in less than three-and-a-half hours, reaching speeds of 1,350 miles per hour, which is more than twice the speed of sound. The July 25th incident, though, was not related to the Concorde’s engine construction or speed.

The investigation revealed that the plane that took off just prior to the Flight 4590 had dropped a piece of metal onto the runway. When the Concorde jet ran over it, its tire was shredded and thrown into one of the engines and fuel tanks, causing a disabling fire.

Concorde jets went back into service in November 2001, but a series of minor problems prompted both Air France and British Airways to end Concorde service permanently in October 2003.

Frequently Asked Questions About Air History

Question: What about the future of aviation?

Answer: Developments will probably continue, just as they have done for so many years. But perhaps from now on, we will have more respect for safety, an attitude which has been growing over the years. There is also likely to be greater respect for the planet, with aviation becoming less harmful to the environment.

Also, space travel will probably be developed to a greater extent….but that is a whole new subject in many ways.

Question: When did flight really begin?

Answer: As you will have gathered, this is a hard question to answer. Perhaps you might consider the first balloon flight as being the real first flight. But it is the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight, on December 17th, 1903, which is generally considered as the dawn of aviation.

Question: Is there one event when pilots consider as the most important in aviation history?

Answer: Again, it has to be the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight. This is the date many pilots celebrate, and along with many others, I made sure I could get airborne on December 17th, 2003, exactly a century after that first flight. It was a very short flight as the weather at the time was appalling, but it was a centenary that had to be celebrated in the air.

Question: What about the future of aviation?

Answer: Developments will probably continue, just as they have done for so many years. But perhaps from now on, we will have more respect for safety, an attitude which has been growing over the years. There is also likely to be greater respect for the planet, with aviation becoming less harmful to the environment.
Also, space travel will probably be developed to a greater extent….but that is a whole new subject in many ways.

Conclusion

As will hopefully be clear from this necessarily brief summary, the history of aviation is full of notable events and fascinating characters. Aviation has changed the world as we know it over the last 100 years or so, and will probably continue to do so well into the future.

Further Read:

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