Today is National Aviation Day, let’s take this time to appreciate the aviation pioneers that made a remarkable contribution in Aviation History. Aviation has generated some of the most remarkable figures that ever lived, including those brave pilots who made the first forays into the air and who courageously pushed the bounds of flight in ways previously unimaginable. At the same time, aviation has produced a number of people whose heroism rises above the job description of pilot, even if that is the day job. These figures touched all of us in aviation and, in many cases, those far beyond the flying world by their extraordinary deeds, talents or accomplishments.
Here are some of the people who changed aviation and, in many cases, the course of human history through their remarkable achievements.
1. Otto Lilienthal
German Otto Lilienthal’s 19th Century experiments and research in flight, which included many successful, long gliding flights in craft he designed, set the stage for the success of the Wrights and others. While Lilienthal failed to embrace new technologies, his scientific approach and practical success were crucial steps in the march of aviation. Lilienthal’s designs used weight shift principles, meaning control was achieved by the pilot maneuvering his body, instead of control surfaces like ailerons and rudders, to change the flight path. Lilienthal also failed to discard the notion that we needed to copy the mechanics of bird flight. Designs he was working on at the end of his career featured flapping wings. Lilienthal died, in a glider crash in 1896, at the age of 48, without seeing the success of the Wrights.
2. Orville and Wilbur Wright
In 1901, after years of aeronautical study into the possibility of a human flying machine, Wilbur Wright told his brother Orville that he believed man would not fly for some 50 years. Less than three years later, Orville blew that projection out of the water and changed the course of history when he made the first powered, heavier-than-air flight. The feat lasted all of 12 seconds, but its reverberations resounded far into the future, laying the foundation for a world unbelievably changed by a single invention: the airplane. Just five newspapers initially reported that first flight, and skeptics of the accomplishment abounded. Nevertheless, the Wright brothers feverishly pursued further development of their invention, meticulously documenting their work, risking their lives and eventually turning doubters into believers as they conducted flight demonstrations across the nation. In 1909 the men sold the U.S. government its first airplane and went on to set up a flight school that trained some of the world’s earliest aviators. For the rest of their lives, the men devoted themselves to the perfection of human-powered flight, and in the process they built the immeasurable stepping stones that created the amazing world of aviation we treasure today.
3. Alberto Santos-Dumont
In the debate over who was really the first to fly — the Wright brothers, as the history books tell us, or someone else — the name Santos Dumont frequently surfaces. In Brazil, Dumont’s home country, he is a national hero. The heir of a wealthy family of coffee producers, Dumont devoted himself to the study of aeronautics in Paris, where he lived as an adult. What is not in dispute is that Dumont was the first to successfully fly a dirigible, piloting his craft around the Eiffel Tower on October 19, 1901. He donated the 125,000 franc prize he received for the feat to the poor of Paris and his workers as a bonus. Dumont’s first official flight in an airplane came on October 23, 1906, when he flew his 14-bis canard biplane before a large crowd for a distance of 197 feet at a height of about 15 feet. The airplane was able to take off under its own power on wheels, as opposed to all of the Wright designs until that point which used launching rails. This distinction has led many Dumont supporters to claim that he technically was the first to fly an airplane.
4. Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman first became enthralled with aviation after hearing World War I veterans return from the conflict with incredible stories of flying feats both seen and heard. She decided she would learn to fly, but as a young African American woman coming of age in the early 1900s, she was rejected by all of the flight schools in the United States that she approached with her plan. Undeterred and inspired by the success of French female pilots, Coleman decided to learn the language and head overseas to pursue flying lessons at the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation. There she learned to fly a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, and received her pilot’s license just seven months later, in 1921. When she stepped foot back in the United States, she became a star, and went on to delight and inspire countless spectators at airshows across the nation. While her life was short-lived — she died in an airplane crash in 1926 — her legacy was not. As the first African American to receive a pilot’s license and one of the earliest female aviators in the world, Coleman broke down barrier after barrier, paving a way for all Americans of future generations to one day pursue the possibility of flight.
5. Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart did more to spur interest in aviation than any pilot of her generation save for Charles Lindbergh. Keenly interested in advancing women’s causes, she capitalized on her celebrity to discuss and write about issues that were important to her. After she became world famous as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, she began endorsing products from luggage to clothing and even Lucky Strike cigarettes. She took first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on her first airplane ride, was an associate editor for Cosmopolitan, helped found the Ninety-Nines and, with Lindbergh, founded an airline that would become TWA. After marrying book publisher George P. Putnam, Earhart set her sights on an even bigger prize: becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by airplane. After an aborted attempt in March 1937 to fly around the world east to west, Earhart tried the same feat going in the other direction. She and navigator Fred Noonan made it all the way from California to within miles of Howland Island in the Pacific, but famously disappeared on July 2, 1937.
6. Igor Sikorsky
Russian-born Igor Sikorsky built his first helicopter in 1909. But his early design didn’t get off the ground and Sikorsky was encouraged to design airplanes instead. He flew his first truly successful design, the S-5, which had a 50-horsepower Argus engine, as early as 1911. The rudimentary airplane later crashed after a mosquito lodged in its fuel system, starving the engine. Sikorsky continued to design and fly fixed-wing airplanes for years, winning multiple races and breaking several records. He focused his efforts on large airplanes. In 1913, he became the first pilot to design and fly a four-engine airplane, the S-21 Grand, which had a gross weight of more than 9,000 pounds, by far the heaviest airplane at the time. The Russian revolution eventually pushed Sikorsky to leave his homeland to continue his pursuit of aviation in the United States where his S-38 amphib and S-42 flying boat became huge successes for Pan Am Airlines in the late 1920s and 1930s. In 1939, Sikorsky finally had an opportunity to build and fly his first viable helicopter, the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300, which was also the predecessor to the first mass-produced helicopter, the Sikorsky R-4. Sikorsky died in 1972, but his legacy lives on with the continued production of a long list of civilian, commercial and military helicopters of many shapes and sizes.
7. Charles Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic New York-Paris flight ignited worldwide passion for aviation and inspired the launch of Flying. Lindbergh, who taught himself to fly in a surplus Jenny, got his Army wings in 1923 before launching a career as an airmail pilot. In the mid-1920s Lindbergh began planning his New York-Paris flight in pursuit of the $25,000 Orteig Prize. In May 1927, flying a purpose-built Ryan monoplane dubbed Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh made the hop to Paris’ Le Bourget Field, where he was mobbed. Despite his instant fame, Lindbergh’s later life was complex and sometimes tragic. After the abduction and murder of his infant son in 1932, he and his family embarked on a withdrawal to Europe, where Lindbergh flew (and secretly reported on) emerging German warplanes. But his seeming support for the German regime made him a polarizing figure at home. In later years, Lindbergh reemerged, secretly flying in World War II and later lending his name to the development of new technologies, endorsing and consulting on the U.S. space effort, and writing prolifically while backing environmental and social causes. He died in Maui, Hawaii, in 1974 at the age of 72.
8. Frank Whittle
British Royal Air Force engineer Frank Whittle is the inventor of the turbojet engine, patenting the design in 1930. Without Air Ministry support, he founded his own company, Power Jets Ltd., to build a prototype, which ran in 1937. The successful test drew interest, and contracts, to build more engines, but Whittle suffered a nervous breakdown in 1940. In 1941, a Gloster E28/39 research airplane was fitted with a Whittle W.1 engine producing 800 pounds of thrust. The airplane reached 466 mph and climbed to 42,000 feet, breaking all aviation records of the day. Because the British government didn’t have the foresight to keep the jet engine design a secret, Germany had no trouble reverse engineering jet engines from Whittle’s patent. In 1944, when Power Jets was nationalized in Great Britain, Whittle again suffered a breakdown, eventually resigning from the company’s board. Despite no longer serving to advance jet design for England, he was nevertheless awarded a knighthood upon retiring from the RAF in 1948. In his career he would be instrumental in helping both Rolls-Royce and General Electric enter the jet age.
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