The Wright Brothers' first flight. See more ­flight pictures.
Wright State University Archives

The twentieth century is unquestionably the century of flight; the last 100 years have been shaped by aviation in a way no other time period has ever been affected by any invention. As remarkable as the automobile, the railroad, and even the steam engine were, their effects were more protracted than those of the aircraft and stimulated far fewer additional inventions. And though the complete impact of the computer is still untold, those effects derive indirectly from aviation, which did more to spur the use and growth of the computer than any other industry. Aviation's constant need for faster and more powerful computers laid the groundwork for the journey into space.

Flight Pictures

It was fortuitous that aviation's beginnings in 1903 coincided with an explosion in the growth of both still and motion pictures. Progress in these areas enabled an unprecedented documentation of the birth and growth of aviation. From the very beginning of piloted, powered flight, aviation has been regarded as a great adventure. Even today, as passenger miles are accumulated in the billions, crowds still gather near the runways of airports simply to watch these marvelous vehicles of the sky. For the same reason, air shows are one of the most popular outdoor events in the world, second only to soccer as a draw for the masses.

­In Chronicle of Flight, the history of aviation is illustrated through hundreds of photographs, each one recording a moment in time when the people involved--designers, manufacturers, pilots--were convinced they had done their absolute best with the time and materials available to them. It is safe to say that none of the millions of aircraft built, nor the thousands of spacecraft, have ever been intended as second best. A purity of purpose and a fanatical attention to detail characterize the aerospace industry in its manufacture of both air­­craft and spacecraft; this effort is illustrated in the marvelous pictorial record created over the twentieth century.

Flying Dangers

Early aircraft were extremely difficult to fly.
Early aircraft were extremely difficult to fly.
Wright State University Archives

­Th­e quest for perfection and the attention to detail is necessitated by the danger inherent in flying. Although danger is no doubt part of the appeal of flying, it is ever present and must be acknowledged by participants. Fortunately, as aircraft have be­come intrinsically more dangerous because they are flying higher, faster, farther, and more often, safety records have improved remarkably. Such advancement is hard earned and expensive, but the benefits are well worth the effort.

As safety and performance have improved, aviation has become more fun. The earliest aircraft were extremely difficult to fly; the pilots had to literally wrestle them about the sky, using muscle to overcome problems of trim and stability. Over time, aircraft were made easier to fly, and labor saving devices such as trim-tabs, autopilots, and improved instrumentation were installed. Aviators began using aircraft for entertainment purposes: racing, flying cross-country, aerobatics, or simply lazing about the sky on a pretty afternoon. Although aircraft never became as inexpensive as the automobile, the cost of flying has been held somewhat in check by the availability of good used aircraft and of home-built aircraft for those skilled and per­servering enough to create them.

While enjoyment in personal aircraft has increased, the concept of having fun on an airliner has been largely eroded by the conversion of airline travel to a mass-transit system. The advent of terrorism and the security precautions necessary to combat it have further diminished the pleasure of airline travel. Nonetheless, no other form of transportation compares when it comes to time and money saved.

Military Aircraft

Aircraft began to play an integral role in the military.
Aircraft began to play an integral role in the military.
Harry Gann

In the course of the twentieth century, military aircraft led the aerodynamic way. Well funded by government expenditures, the manufacturers of military aircr­aft were able to push the performance envelope farther and faster. In that same period of time, the procurement of military aircraft declined in direct relation to their growth in cost. This phenomenon gave rise to Augustine's Law, which posits that if the trend continues, an air force will be able to afford only one aircraft for all its needs. It has not quite reached that level yet, but while the United States built hundreds of thousands of military aircraft during World War II, it is now buying them at the rate of a few dozen per year. Other nations face the same problems, and aircraft are now considered a platform to carry newly developed weapons rather than as weapon systems in themselves.

This new concept of aircraft simply being a place to put new weapons has kept some types, such as the Boeing B-52 and KC-135, in service for more than 50 years. This is important in terms of economy--if you amortize a $6 million B-52 over 50years, it is an amazingly inexpensive weapon. But perhaps more important than reasons of economy or anything else, at the end of almost a solid century of warfare, the aircraft and its new generation of precision-guided munitions have assumed a vastly greater role than ever before. For the first time since 1945, an alternative method of obtaining decisive results from the air is now available with the efforts of stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, airborne command and control systems, and the use of massive satellite systems for intelligence, com­munication, navigation, and mete­o­rology. These are artfully combined in combat to create incredibly accurate bombing systems that may prove to be the way out of the nuclear dilemma, for they can achieve decisive results without having to resort to dropping thermonuclear bombs. There is some irony in this, of course, because it was the airplane that enabled the use of atomic weapons in the first place.

The path from the tracks scratched in the sands of Kitty Hawk by the Wright Flyer to the footprints on the moon to the probes that have ventured out of the solar system has been long, swift, and exciting. You'll see this history etched in the images that follow. ­