2015 saw the first commercial flight of the Airbus A350 XWB, Airbus’ newest airliner and probably the most technologically advanced commercial aircraft so far. It is an impressive machine: designed and flown primarily by computers, with numerous wing and fuselage pieces manufactured within micrometric tolerances using the most advanced composite materials. Also, it has considerably more sophisticated engines that are very powerful and yet, still consume less fuel and produce less noise than previous engines.
All these capabilities seem even more outstanding and astonishing when we consider that the first flight of an airplane heavier than air occurred only 112 years ago, in December 1903. So one might wonder, how did commercial aviation get to where it is now? How did mankind evolve from a short 12-second hop, to flying at 850 kilometers per hour, at 11,000 meters altitude in an almost fully automatic machine that can carry 315 passengers from New York to Bangkok, non-stop?
One might be tempted to think that this was a rational, linear and predictable process. According to this view, commercial aviation was developed in a straight forward manner, leading from the Wright brothers to the A350 with no forks in the road, and going beyond the present towards the future.
Or was it? According to science historian James Burke, technology acts as a giant interconnected network, in which change in one part of it is felt throughout the whole network. As a result, the development of any technology will be non-linear, unpredictable and depend strongly on the development of other technologies. Aviation is no exception to this.
For example: early developments of heavier than air flying machines during the 19th century were frequently hampered by the same issue: the weight of the propulsion mechanism. At that time, steam engines were commonly used for propulsion in several means of transport: they could produce enormous power, but at the cost of a large mass, prohibitive for flight.
Accordingly, flight at that time was reduced to gliding, until a new technology came about during the late 19th century: the internal combustion engine. Internal combustion engines provided enough power with a reasonable mass, allowing aviation to – literally – take off.
The same situation repeated half a century later, when the development of jet engines allowed for even more power with the same mass – thus accelerating the development of the modern helicopter.
The objective of this series of articles is to point out some of the factors that contributed to decisive changes in the history of aviation, and what made aviation (especially commercial aviation) into what it is today. These articles will try to explore how aviation was shaped by history, and how aviation, in turn, has shaped history.
However, this description of events cannot (by definition) be completely exhaustive, and some triggers and decisive moments will be left out – readers are encouraged to point out any omissions they might consider important – or even unforgivable.
The next article will tackle the beginnings of aviation head-on, and will explain how a very simple change in the way flight was approached, changed the course of aviation: from millennia of failures, to a fully-developed concept in little more than a century. You will find it here, at techforspace.com. This article will be published on Sunday, April the 3rd. The following articles will be published on the first Sunday of each month.
By the way, the whole idea behind this series of articles is heavily influenced by James Burke’s outstanding “Connections” and “The Day the Universe Changed” shows. They are hugely recommended for anyone interested in history. Specifically, yours truly, believes that anyone who wants to know how technology shaped our history and our vision of the world, must, check him out. Evidently, and as James Burke would said, we “snitched” the name from his show. We stand on the shoulders of giants (all of them bigger than us).