Flight at the End of the 20th Century

The Northrop YB-49 flying wing was a jet-powered bomber prototype designed back in the 1940s -- even though its unique design still looks modern. See more pictures of flight.
Peter M. Bowers Collection

The only certainty in life is that things change. This has especially been true of politics. The world barely had time to digest the fact that Russia and the former member states of the Soviet Union no longer constituted the threat they once represented when trouble began to break out in smaller countries on a smaller scale.

The first flash point was in Bosnia, where the first-ever NATO combat missions attempted to forcibly solve the problems of ethnic strife. On one of these missions, in February 1994, United States Air Force F-16s shot down four Bosnian Super Galeb attack planes. There was also a sense of historical significance during Operation Deliberate Force, when on June 30, 1995, the German Luftwaffe flew its first combat mission in 49 years as Panavia Tornados made reconnaissance flights from a base in Italy.

Flight Pictures

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This was low-level war, with no threat of atomic, chemical, or biological weapons evident. But it was dangerous nonetheless and required the full application of all the weapons of modern warfare, including space-based systems, stealth aircraft, and precision-guided munitions.

Iraq continued to be a hot spot, refusing to permit U.N. weapons inspectors access and routinely firing on U.N. aircraft patrolling "no-fly" zones. In one instance in 1996, when Iraqi military movements seemed particularly threatening, two Boeing B-52s made a dramatic around-the-world flight in 47 hours, dropping 54 bombs on a target range near the Iraqi border en route. The message was understood, and the Iraqi military stopped its menacing actions.

­The year 2003 was the centennial anniversary of powered flight, but even as the aviation world approached and passed this landmark, there were records to be broken. The adventuresome continued to fly higher, faster, and farther than ever before.

In 1994, Ron Bower made the fastest global circumnavigation in a helicopter, flying a Bell Long Ranger and completing the task in 24 days, 4 hours, 6 minutes. A year later, a Boeing 777 made another record flight around the world, averaging 533 miles per hour and setting one great circle distance record of 12,455 miles.

In 2005, billionaire adventurer Steve Fossett completed the first ever nonstop, unrefueled solo flight around the world in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer. The next year, he extended GlobalFlyer's unprecedented range by taking her on the longest nonstop flight in history, covering some 26,000 miles. In terms of raw speed, NASA's unmanned X-43A hypersonic scramjet set a new world record for an air-breathing jet engine in 2004 by reaching the unbelievable speed of 7,000 mph.

NASA Missions, 1994-2007

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

Balloonists also continued pushing the envelope, with Steve Fossett setting a balloon distance record of 14,235 miles in 1998, only to see the Breitling Orbiter III finally achieve, in 1999, the first ever flight around the world in a balloon.

There was similar variety in space records. The Space Shuttle Discovery rendezvoused with the troubled Mir Space Station. In command was Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot an American spacecraft. On a subsequent flight, the Space Shuttle Atlantis would actually dock with Mir. The Russian cosmonaut, Dr. Valeri Polyakov, returned to Earth after making the longest space flight ever of more than 437 days. The 51-year-old American astronaut, Shannon Lucid, made her second trip into space and spent 181 days aboard Mir - surely enough for anyone, given the somewhat decrepit state into which the venerable space station had fallen. Mir's situation did not improve a few months later when an unpiloted Progress supply craft collided with it, jeopardizing the lives of all aboard.

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Much of the Space Shuttle work was directed toward the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). At one point, Mir, the Space Shuttle Discovery, and the ISS were linked, forming the greatest artificial mass ever put into orbit. Within two years, the ISS would be the scene of much activity including spectacular EVAs of up to five hours duration. The ISS would also serve as the destination for the first-ever space tourists. In April 2001, Dennis Tito paid $20 million to join a Russian flight to the ISS. Mark Shuttleworth followed in June 2002, also paying $20 million for the privilege.

NASA continued its deep-space missions, sending the Cassini-Huygens space probe to explore Saturn and its moons. In 2005, Huygens landed on the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and began transmitting scientific information. The next year, Cassini detected geysers of liquid, possibly water, on one of Saturn's other moons.

Mars was also a planet of great interest during this period, as NASA sent a variety of probes to the red planet to take photographs and gather data. NASA explored other planets in our solar system, as well, by sending its New Horizons spacecraft toward Pluto in 2006, and in 2007, its MESSENGER spacecraft to Mercury via Venus.

Heavenly bodies other than planets were also the subjects of scrutiny. One of the greatest, showiest space events in history occurred when the NEAR orbiter was directed to land on the asteroid Eros and did so successfully. Another feat was the capture of photos of the Comet Borrelly nucleus by the Deep Space I satellite. No less dramatic, in a 2005 mission reminiscent of a science-fiction movie, NASA sent Deep Impact to comet Tempel 1, where it launched a projectile into the comet just to see what would happen. And of course, the sense of going ever deeper into space, and ever backward in time, was heightened by the success of the Hubble Telescope. After receiving a complete overhaul in space, it began recording its incredible "Hubble Ultra Deep Field" images.

Airline Mergers, 2000-2007

The Boeing 767 is another widely-used twin-jet passenger airliner in the Boeing fleet.
The Boeing 767 is another widely-used twin-jet passenger airliner in the Boeing fleet.
The Boeing Collection

The turn of the century was marked by an increase in international cooperation, w­ith, for exam­ple, the launching of the Echo-Star direct TV satellite by a Chinese Long March rocket booster. In 2003, the European Space Agency launched its SMART-1 spacecraft toward the moon, and in 2007, its Rosetta spacecraft passed Mars on its way to a distant comet. Not to be left out, Japan that same year sent an unmanned spacecraft to the moon.

There were dozens of other space successes including one that was technically brilliant but economically unsound: The Iridium company put up 66 satellites for a worldwide communication system, only to find that the ordinary cell phone had proliferated to such an extent that the system was virtually without value.

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The wave of mergers went on, with Northrop acquiring Grumman to become Northrop Grumman on March 29,1994. Grumman would close its aircraft manufacturing capability as Northrop Grumman embarked in a variety of new competitive arenas. Then Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas. This time there was no hyphenated name. As McDonnell Douglas signs came down at St. Louis, Long Beach, and elsewhere, Boeing signs went up. One reason for the merger was that the McDonnell Douglas entry in the Joint Strike Fighter competition had lost out, essentially removing that venerable firm from the fighter business. Boeing and Lockheed Martin competed for the JSF $200 billion contract, the largest in history, and Lockheed Martin won with a highly capable aircraft that bore a strong resemblance to the F-22.

Merger mania also extended to the airlines when two of Europe's largest carriers, KLM and Air France, officially merged in 2004 to form Air France-KLM. In the U.S., merger talks were widespread and ongoing as airlines struggled to find ways to stay financially aloft.

For the airplane fan, the problems of war and space mattered little so long as new and beautiful airplanes were developed. These included the Boeing 777, Beriev Be 32K, Airbus A319, Tupolev Tu-214, Cirrus SR-20, Learjet 45, EMBRARER 145, Lockheed Martin C-130J, and Raytheon Beech T-6A Texan II.

Perhaps even more significant than the aircraft themselves were innovative new categories of aircraft that debuted during this period.

The unveiling of the FAA's landmark Sport Pilot rule in 2004 opened floodgates to a whole new generation of light sport aircraft of all shapes and persuasions, the likes of which had not been seen since the Golden Age of aviation.

A new category of "superjumbojet" was introduced with the massive 555-passenger Airbus A380, which made its first passenger flight late in 2007. A new concept in private jet aircraft emerged in 2006 with the first of the "Very Light Jets" (VLJ). Such miniature jet aircraft as the Cessna Citation Mustang and the Eclipse 500 suddenly made the world of high-altitude, high-speed jet flight affordable to a much wider range of customers.

Finally, a truly revolutionary new concept came about with the introduction of the Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first privately built and funded rocketship to carry a human into space. By accomplishing this feat. it claimed for its team the $10-million Ansari X-Prize, but more important, it completed the first step toward making routine travel into space by ordinary citizens a reality.

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Fifth Generation Fighter Planes

The Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor was among the first of the fifth generation of fighter planes.
The Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor was among the first of the fifth generation of fighter planes.
Warren M. Bodie Collection

Military aviation was not excluded from the conceptual renaissance. The first of the so-called "fifth generation" fighters, led by the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, made their presence known in a big way. Designers combined innovations such as thrust vectoring, stealth technology, and advanced avionics and weapons systems to make these aircraft the most potent air weapons ever known to man.

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Significantly, some of the military's new aircraft came without cockpits. With the advancement of computer technology and the ongoing goal of keeping pilots out of harm's way, futuristic-looking unmanned aircraft played an increasingly important role in military operations. These aircraft included the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator; the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, and X-47B Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems aircraft. The X-47B was the world's first unmanned surveillance attack aircraft capable of operating from both land bases and aircraft carriers.

Also of note was the Boeing X-37 unmanned reusable Approach and Landing Test Vehicle and the BAE Systems Skylynx II unmanned aircraft, which was designed to support U.S. Marine Corps missions.

The world changed forever on September 11, 2001, when Arab terrorists used U. S. airliners to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The United States reacted, gathering a coalition and using pure air power in an attempt to destroy strongholds of the Al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban regime. This led - directly or indirectly - to the invasion, defeat, and occupation of Iraq by overwhelmingly superior U.S. military forces.

But contrary to the "Mission Accomplished" banner hanging behind President George W. Bush after he landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, the mission was far from accomplished. The war on terrorism promises to be a long one, new tactics will be brought to bear, and there will be advances in both air and space beyond our imagination.

Sadly, tragedy struck again on February 1, 2003, with the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its seven crew members. The accident pointed to organizational problems at NASA and seemed to place the future of both the Space Shuttle Program and the International Space Station in jeopardy. Concern was expressed as to whether the scientific return from the two programs justified the risk involved. There was pressure to evaluate the entire piloted space program to determine how to proceed. Some said that unpiloted spacecraft could perform substantially all of the current Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions, while others maintained that it was essential from an emotional and spiritual point of view to continue with piloted space flight.

In the end, however, it appears that both opposing views might actually have prevailed. On the one hand, nations worldwide have successfully sent increasing numbers of unmanned space probes into outer space to explore our solar system. But during the same period following the Columbia tragedy, Space Shuttle missions to the International Space Station, as well as other manned missions, have continued. Even China joined the act in 2003 by becoming only the third nation ever to send a man into space. Even more telling, NASA announced in 2006 a long-term plan not only to once again send humans to the moon, but also to create a permanent manned base there!

Regardless of how events unfold, one thing seems certain: The future of aviation and space exploration remains bright and limitless, but as long as man has the capacity to reason, these pursuits will -- as they always have -- continue to evolve with the times.

Read about the very beginnings of aviation in The Dawn of Flight