Highlights from a Century of Flight

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Monday December 15, 2003

On December 17 it will be 100 years since Orville Wright became the first human to experience powered flight. Though the brothers Wright had invited folk from far and wide to watch the event at Kitty Hawk, it is indicative of the skepticism of the time that just five people journied out that morning to witness this significant feat and three were from the local 'life-saving station' and were attendant for obvious reasons.

Once flight had been achieved, the news sparked an astonishing cavalcade of development which has continued unabated for the last 100 years.

Within five years the world's first helicopter had been flown, the American Armed Forces were working with the Wrights developing the first military aircraft and the Wright Brothers company had become incorporated with the astonishing capitalization (for the time) of US$1 Million.

Within a decade, both sea-planes and parachutes had been developed and the US Navy had begun dropping bombs.

Within 20 years the fledgling aviation industry was commercialising with airmail being offered in many countries, international commercial passenger services and even trans-Atlantic flight was possible. The military meanwhile, had recognised the lethal capability of the aircraft and had begun in-light refuelling and the US navy had commissioned the first aircraft carrier.

Four decades after the event, and the most advanced passenger aircraft had pressurised cabins allowing them to fly higher and hence above turbulence.

Werner Von Braun had developed jet propulsion to devastating effect. Aircraft had already transformed military combat moreso than any other technology in history.

At the half century point, planes were flying faster than the speed of sound and the global airline industry was booming, as evidenced by American Airlines flying 10 million passenger miles in a single day for the first time. Flight had already changed global society, providing routine, affordable commercial air travel.

As the 50 year mark ticked over, Boeing was in the final process of testing what was to become the world's first jet passenger liner, it's famed 707. The world's population entered the jet age soon after and global mobility was a reality.

By the 60 year mark, airline passenger numbers had passed steamship passengers across the Atlantic, aircraft could fly more than 4000 mph and Major Yuri Gagarin gazumped them all when he became the first earthling to escape our planet's gravitational pull by orbiting the earth in Vostok 1.

Gagarin also went faster than any human being had gone before him by travelling at an approximate speed of 18,000 mph in the Russian spacecraft.

By the 2/3 of the century mark, we had supersonic passenger aircraft, VTOL (Vertical Take-off And Landing) fighter aircraft and Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin had flown to the moon and back.

The rate of progress has been supersonic for a century and in the next decade we will begin to see passenger cars take to the skies, private space flight, and the human species will begin to colonise the solar system.

Ed note: Gizmo is seeking an aviation editor - interested parties write to editor@gizmo.com.au

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