The Decade After

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n the years after the first sustained, controlled flights at Kitty Hawk, aircraft technology progressed at a pace that has been unequalled by any other invention, save the computer. The Wright brother's best flight on December 17, 1903 covered only 852 feet at a speed of about 34 mph. Today, aircraft routinely fly across oceans at speeds in excess of 1000 mph. Spacecraft circle the globe at over 15,000 mph.

  Fastest Ever

The century following Kitty Hawk has been filled with amazing accomplishments in aviation, but it was the first dozen years that laid the foundation for this adventure. These were the years of the "firsts" – the first kilometer, the first circle, the first international flight, the first air mail, the first bomb dropped, the first airline, and so on. During this time aviation records were shattered daily as each pilot who went aloft flew higher, further, longer, or faster than pilots had flown before.  With each milestone passed, new possibilities for this versatile invention presented themselves. In 1903, there was only "the airplane," but during this short period of pioneer aviation the raw metal of the airplane was forged into a dozen different flying machines that quickly became essential for the way we conduct war and peace, over land and water.

  • Landing Without Crashing, 1903 to 1905 The Wright Brothers develop their temperamental Kitty Hawk Flyer into a practical flying machine, able to take off in a wide range of weather conditions, navigate to a predetermined destination, and "land without crashing," as Wilbur put it.
  • Wake Up Call, 1905 to 1909 As word spreads about the Wright brothers accomplishments, aviation enthusiasts and aeronautical engineers in America and Europe begin to build their own airplanes. As the Wrights begin to demonstrate their Flyers, other builders recognize the brilliant solution to the flying problem was three axis control. They quickly catch up to the Wrights.
  • Faster, Higher, Farther, 1909 to 1912   As airplanes become increasingly capable and reliable, people start using them for transportation. In a few short years, flight is transformed from a curiosity to a somewhat reliable means of reaching a destination.
  • Girding for Battle, 1912 to 1914 As the First World War approaches, nations begin to test and refine the capabilities of the airplane as weapon,  increasing its speed and maneuverability and arming it with guns, bombs, and radios.

During the pioneer years between the Wright brothers' first powered flights and World War I, many renowned scientists, engineers, and pilots helped shape the future of aviation. Among them, these few stand out not just as pioneers but also trailblazers.

It may have flown faster, higher, and farther, but look inside the Space Shuttle cockpit and you'll find the very same stick-and-rudder control system...

...developed by Louis Bleriot and Robert Esnault-Pelterie for the Bleriot VIII in 1908.
(Note: The photo shows a 1909 Bleriot XI cockpit -- the two aircraft had almost identical controls.)
Ferdinand Ferber, a captain in the French army, was experimenting with Lilienthal-type gliders in 1899 at a time when most of his flight-minded contemporaries had abandoned airplanes for dirigibles. After hearing of the Wright brothers' work in 1902, he built rude copies of their gliders. He had little success at first, but when he moved the elevator to the rear to create a horizontal tail, his gliders became more stable and flights more satisfactory. Later, he collaborated with the Voisons to help design their first successful aircraft. His most important contribution, however, was his passion and enthusiasm for fixed-wing flight and his determination to persuade his fellow Frenchmen to see its possibilities.

Ferdinand Ferber.

Gabriel Voison flies Ferber's tail-in-back glider in 1904. The triangular surfaces on the ends of the wings serve as rudders.
Alberto Santos Dumont, a renowned Brazilian aeronaut residing in France, was among the first to follow Ferber's advice. After hearing tales of the Wrights' accomplishments, he set aside his dirigibles and began work on both a helicopter and an aircraft. He abandoned his helicopter but his aircraft, the 14 Bis, flew on 23 October 1906 for a little over 200 feet (60 meters) and then again on 12 November 1906 for 726 feet (220 meters), the first powered flights in Europe. These events galvanized Europe and fixed-wing flight research began in earnest. Later Santos Dumont designed the Demoiselle, a popular monoplane considered by many to be the first ultralight.

Santos Dumont pilots the 14 Bis in October of 1906. The aircraft had no tail; the box-like surfaces at the front of the aircraft -- the canard -- served as both elevator and rudder.

Alberto Santos Dumont.
Louis Bleriot, an inventor and manufacturer of automobile headlamps, joined Gabriel Voison in 1905 to create the world's first aircraft manufacturing firm. After two unsuccessful designs, the two men split. Bleriot continued to build unsuccessful airplanes on his own until he teamed with  Raymond Saulnier in 1909 to produce the Bleriot XI. He became the first to fly across the English Channel on 25 July 1909, giving his fledging airplane company a much-needed shot in the arm. The wide popularity of the Bleriot XI helped firmly establish the advantages of the "tractor" (engine first, tail last) configuration. Bleriot also helped to develop the standard stick-and-rudder control system still in use today.

Louis Bleriot.

The Bleriot XI not only was the first airplane to cross a large body of water (the English Channel), it was also the first European airplane to be used for a military campaign (1911) and the first ever for aerobatics (1913).
Charles and Gabriel Voison partnered to build airplanes in 1906, shortly after Gabriel had split with Louis Bleriot and dissolved their aircraft manufacturing endeavor. The brothers established an aircraft factory in Billancourt, France, making airplanes to order. In 1907, they  made two successful aircraft, one for Leon Delagrange and another for Henri Farman. Although similar to Wright aircraft in configuration, Voison machines had tails with both horizontal and vertical stabilizing surfaces.  With these airplanes, Delagrange was able to make repeated flights up to 1650 feet (500 meters) and Farman flew a full kilometer (about 5/8 mile) making a complete 360-degree turn.

Gabriel (left) and Charles (right) Voison.

When the Voison-Delagrange aircraft first flew in early 1907 , it looked like a Wright airplane married to a huge box-kite tail. Over the year, it evolved to have a single surface elevator, dihedral wings with side curtains, and a much smaller tail.
Glenn Curtiss was a motorcycle manufacturer when built his first airplane, the June Bug, for the Aerial Experimentation Association in 1908. That same year he won the Scientific American Trophy for being first to fly a kilometer (officially). He soon became a major force in the early aviation industry, popularizing the use of ailerons for roll control, developing pontoons and the flying boat, and building the first American airplane to be used in a military campaign (the JN-3). The Curtiss OX-5 was the first mass-produced aviation engine, powering a generation of light aircraft.

The Curtiss Model E was the first successful flying boat. Note the ailerons mounted between the wings.

Glenn H. Curtiss.
Geoffrey DeHavilland built his first airplane in 1909, wrecked it, then sold his second to the British War Office.  He joined the Royal Aircraft Factory in 1911 and within a year had produced two historically important aircraft, the B.E.1 and the B.E.2. The B.E. 1, with it's tractor configuration and enclosed fuselage,  was the first of the "second generation" aircraft and as such marked the beginning of the end for the pioneer era of aviation. The B.E.2, after some modifications became the first inherently stable aircraft, a crucial characteristic for all general and commercial aircraft.

The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c,  first test-flown in 1912, is considered by many aviation historians to be the prototype for all World War I fighters. "B.E." stood for "Bleriot Experimental." During this period, the tractor configuration was sometimes referred to as the "Bleriot" configuration, since Bleriot had done so much pioneering work to refine the design.

Geoffrey DeHavilland.

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