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Conquering Air and Space

McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle was a tactical fighter introduced in 1976. This aerial combat plane is still in use today. See more pictures of flight.
U.S. Department of Defense

In a global economy, wars in the Middle East can affect gas prices everywhere. Increased prices were a shock at the gas station pump for the average driver, but they became a matter of life or death for airlines. Where in the past fuel eco­nomy had been just one of the performance factors to consider when designing or buying a new airliner, it now became paramount. But, regardless of the cost of fuel, both the Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic transports entered passenger service.

Flight Pictures

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The high fuel prices hit the military, too, and flying times were cut all over the world. Older aircraft were being retired by the thousands. The U.S. military, in the midst of considering the lessons learned in Vietnam, came up with the requirement for two new fighters: the expensive McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle for air superiority work and the less expensive General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon for ground attack and other tasks. Both would serve the United States well for decades to come, and both would be used by many allied nations around the world. The Soviet Union responded, as usual, with its own excellent MiG and Sukhoi designs, while France, also as usual, continued to develop and expand their line of Dassault fighters.

International cooperation was in the wind, and the effort proven in the building of the Anglo-French Concorde spread to other types including the Panavia Tornado and the SEPECAT Jaguar. Ultimately the idea would result in the fantastic line of Airbus Industrie transports.

As the century of flight progressed into its eighth decade, it was natural that some of the great pioneers would pass on. Charles Lindbergh died at the age of 72 and Willy Messerschmitt at age 80.

But even as the famous passed on, other new names emerged. Dr. Paul MacCready and his team created the Gossamer Condor to win the Kremer Prize for piloted aircraft. Piloted by Bryan Allen, the shimmering aircraft flew a figure-eight course around two points one half mile apart. The flight had far more than human-interest value. It would lead to a steady series of solar-powered research aircraft.

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The Airbus A-300 was the world's first twin-engine widebody airplane. It made its first flight in 1972.
The Airbus A-300 was the world's first twin-engine widebody airplane. It made its first flight in 1972.
Peter M. Bowers Collection

The taking of hostages by terrorists took on a more international flavor on July 3-4, 1976, when 100 crew and passengers aboard an Air France Airbus A300B were hijacked and, with President Idi Amin's permission, were brought to the airport at Entebbe, Uganda, by their Palestinian and East German captors. An Israeli commando unit stormed the airport and rescued the hostages, setting a precedent for the war against terrorism.

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A sad mission for helicopters occurred in Vietnam in 1975. The North Vietnamese violated the 1973 peace treaty and invaded South Vietnam, reaching the capital, Saigon, in late April 1975. On April 30, U.S. helicopters evacuated staff members and refugees from the roof of the embassy and adjacent buildings, ending all U.S. presence in Vietnam.

There were other wars, of course, the most significant being the eight-year struggle between Iraq and Iran in which ballistic missiles and chemical weapons were used with abandon. In the South Atlantic, Argentina attempted to take back what it calls the Malvinas from Great Britain. A short intense war followed that resulted in a British victory but at considerable cost. The territory remained the Falkland Islands and was not recovered by Argentina. In the same decade, the Soviet Union became involved in a war in Afghanistan, which would have uncanny parallels to the planning, execution, and outcome of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Politically, the Cold War seemed to be less dangerous. It was true that both the United States and the Soviet Union each had aircraft, ICBMs, and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) aimed at each other, but the rhetoric became a little less violent. One reason was the comprehensive information that each side was gaining from the other by means of satellite intelligence systems. Satellites were in the process of changing everything, including navigation, communication, meteorology, and intelligence, and the rockets that were brought into being to deliver nuclear warheads were now pumping satellites into the sky with increasing regularity.

A new, more efficient Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) emerged with the arrival of the Boeing E-3A Sentry. The AWACS became a force multiplier, able to identify enemy airborne targets and direct friendly assets to them. With satellites and AWACS, the possibility of a surprise attack was reduced, and both the United States and the Soviet Union became more comfortable with each other.

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NASA launched Space Shuttle Discovery in 1984, and the vehicle is now the oldest of the three active shuttles.
NASA launched Space Shuttle Discovery in 1984, and the vehicle is now the oldest of the three active shuttles.
NASA

Among the great advances in business was the proliferation of executive jet aircraft. What had begun with the Lockheed JetStar, North American Saberliner, and Learjet now turned into a competitive race between Gulfstream, Dassault, Learjet, Cessna, and others to produce the most luxurious and most cost-effective executive jet transports possible. The ultraluxurious jets now featured intercontinental range and speeds that were in the high-subsonic range.

Another new phenomenon was arising out of the brain, sweat, and energy of Paul Poberzney, whose Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) had grown from a few friends gathered in his basement into the most important general aviation organization in history. The EAA, with its annual Fly-In at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, promoted every aspect of general aviation, including ultra-lights, home-builts, classics, war-birds, and more. It began by essentially offering private flyers an alternative to purchasing a used Piper Cub but became a leader in aviation business, education, and research. The home-built industry became a phenomenon in itself, with more and more kits being offered and more and more aircraft being completed and flown.

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This was also the decade of the Space Shuttle, the fantastic rocket-borne glider that would take astronauts into orbit for experiments, national defense, and, ultimately, to build the International Space Station. The path to the Space Shuttle was taken deliberately and with great care. Piloted space flight had captured the public's imagination in a way even the most fantastic satellite never could.

To learn about the next era in flight history, read about Flight After the Cold War.

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