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Milestones in Aviation

Today I'm going to look at a few important milestones in the conquest of air and space. I'll mark them on a timeline (with the first manned flight on the left, and the present day, at time of writing, on the right).

The first flight

On December 17th 1903, over the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers opened up a new era of human history – the first manned heavier than air powered flight. Their first flight only lasted 12 seconds, and it stuttered about 120 feet of airborne distance (less than the length of modern jet airliner), but their Wright Flyer was the first manned powered airplane. By October 1905, they had tweaked the design and managed to fly a distance of over 24 miles, and progress continued.
Interestingly, it’s only because of lack of engineering technology that the first aircraft flight was not a century earlier. Sir George Cayley, an Englishman (better still, a Yorkshireman), was a prolific inventor and aeronautical engineer, and is often given the title “the father of aviation”. Cayley documented the concepts of lift, weight, thrust and drag (the four fundamental forces affecting aircraft), and the importance of camber on wings to generate lift. He built the first successful manned glider (including one flight, piloted by his coachman John Appleby, across a Yorkshire valley). He correctly predicted that that in order to get sustained flight he would need an engine lightweight enough to provide the sufficient thrust required to offset the drag.
"To make a surface support a given weight by the application of power to the resistance of air"
Sadly, he was ahead of his time and the appropriate internal combustion engines were not available to provide this thrust (at a reasonable weight). In addition to aircraft, Cayley invented many other things: Self-right lifeboats, tension-spoked wheels, caterpillar tractors, automatic railway signals, seatbelts, and a gunpowder engine! He also contributed in the fields of prosthetics, air engines, electricity, theatre architecture, ballistics, optics, telescopes, and land reclamation.
He certainly was a forward thinker:
"I may be expediting the attainment of an object that will in time be found of great importance to mankind; so much so, that a new era in society will commence from the moment that aerial navigation is familiarly realised … I feel perfectly confident, however, that this noble art will soon be brought home to man's convenience, and that we shall be able to transport ourselves and our families, and their goods and chattels, more securely by air than by water"

What about lighter than air?

Hot-alr balloons, and dirigibles, have flown before aircraft. These devices are classified as ‘lighter than air’ devices because, as their name implies, using Archimedes Principle, they float in the air. Their average density is less than the surround air, so they float essentially ‘weightless’ though, of course, they have mass. (See What does a cloud weigh?)
Sky lanterns have been flown by many nations, such as the Chinese, for thousands of years, but the first manned hot air balloon flight was made by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier in Annonay, Ardeche, France in 1783. Their first flight lasted ten minutes.
The Montgolfier brothers first experimented with unmanned balloons, then balloons with animals, and graduated to human flight, first tethered, then untethered.

The first death

1908 marks the somber year of the first aircraft fatality. Lt. Thomas Selfridge was flying with Orville Wright when there was a catastrophic failure of one of the two propellers. The Wright Flyer hit the ground hard, and both men were injured. Orville suffered a fractured leg and several broken ribs. Selfridge suffered a fractured skull and died in the hospital a few hours later.

Crossing the English Channel

In 1909, a Frenchman, Louis Bleriot, broke the first of an escalating series of long-distance challenges with his air crossing of the English Channel (the narrow stretch of water that separates England and France). He earned a £1,000 prize.
The onset of World War I accelerated the development of the aeroplane; specifically in the areas of durability, reliability, payload and range (not so much speed).

Crossing the Atlantic

After the war, the next distance challenge became that of crossing the Atlantic, non-stop. This was achieved on June 14, 1919 by John Alcock, and Arthur Whitten-Brown. A journey lasting 16.5 hours. Alcock and Borown shared something in common with Bleriot; both of their planes made ‘unimpressive’ landings at their destinations (planting themselves, nose first, into the ground not long after the wheels touched down).

Around the World

In 1924, the US Army managed to take four aircraft around the World (starting and finishing in Seattle). They made 74 stops, and the trip took 175 days! The airplanes were named for American cities and carried a flight number: Seattle (1), Chicago (2), Boston (3), and New Orleans (4).

Solo Atlantic

In 1927, Charles Lindburgh crossed the Atlantic, solo, in his plane the Spirit of St. Louis. It’s a wonderful achievement, flying this distance solo, but I’ve never been sure why this milestone garnered a disproportionate level of attention. Planes had been crossing the Atlantic non-stop for a few years (though not very reliably); he just did it alone. He became an overnight hero in America.

Image: Library of Congress

Pacific Crossing

The first non-stop crossing of the Pacific occurred in 1931, on a flight from Japan to the West Coast of the USA. Keeping to tradition (of bad landing firsts), it made a belly ‘landing’ in Wenatchee, WA, but in this case it was planned as the landing gear was jettisoned in Japan, just after take-off, in order to save weight. The aircraft travelled 4,883 miles.

First Jet

The first turbojet aircraft to fly was the Heinkel He 178 V1. World War II saw the pinnacle for propellor driven aircraft with aircraft such as the Spitfire, but further progress could not be made with piston driven internal combustion engines. To get more performance, planes needed to use jets (or rockets, but these are almost impossible to control and regulate).
With increased public confidence, Pan American inaugurated the world's first transatlantic passenger service on June 28, 1939, between New York and Marseilles, France, and on July 8 between New York and Southampton.


In 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first pilot to break the sound barrier in his jet propelled X1 aircraft. After being dropped from the belly of its B-29 mothership, the X1 fired rockets and obtained a speed on Mach 1.06 (about 700 mph).

Image: NASA

Transatlantic Passenger Jet Service

On 4 October 1958, the very first transatlantic passenger jet services started. British airline BOAC flew two de Havilland Comet aircraft – one from New York to London and one from London to New York. Whilst the Comet was the world’s first commercial jet airliner, a series of accidents plagued the Comet (traced back to a fatigue issue caused by the sharp corners of its square windows). Boeing and the 707 quickly filled the gap.

Image: BAE

Supersonic Passenger Jet

The first supersonic passenger jet was not the Concorde, but the Russian Tu-144. The Tu-144 first broke the sound barrier on 5 June 1969, a full four months before Concorde. Sadly the Russian aircraft was less sophisticated, and considerably less reliable. After a few unfortunate incidents, the Tupolev was relegated to carrying mail, then quietly retired. Concorde, which had a cruise speed of Mach 2.04 (1,341 mph), was more successful and was in service for 27 years, before being retired in 2003. I’m humbled to say that I’ve had the privilege of flying Concorde half a dozen times (including once from the cockpit jump seat). Each trip was magical. I continue to joke with my kids that, when I grew up, it used to take just three and a half hours to cross the Atlantic! (Flying at 65,000 ft, above the weather). These days, it takes about twice as long.

Tu-144 Image: Wikimedia

Non-stop around the World

The last great distance record, that of flying non-stop around the Globe, was passed in 1986 when Dick Rutan, and Jeane Yeager, spent nine days, three minutes, and forty four seconds in the air; they travelled 26,358 miles. Their, brilliantly designed, plane Voyager was a high-aspect ratio composite marvel. Weighing just 2,250 pounds empty, and with a colossal 110 ft wingspan, the plane was able to just get into the air carrying 7,011 pounds of fuel (plus all the other supplies thy would need). They flew Westward, hugging the equator to make best use of trade winds. The lightweight plane was not pressurized, so could not fly over the weather but instead had to fly threw it. When they returned from their global sojourn, they had just 106 pounds of fuel left in the tanks.

Longest Duration Flight

Whilst nine days on a plane sounds like a hell of a lot of time to be in the air without coming down, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the (current) longest duration flight.
The longest a (heavier than air) aircraft has been in the air, without landing, is a staggering 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes! This was performed, not in some fancy luxurious plane, but in a humble Cessna 172. The aircraft was slightly modified to accomplish this task. First they installed a 95 gallon belly fuel tank (to augment the 47 gallon wing tanks). Next they replumbed the oil lines to allow the oil (and filters) to be changed whilst the engine was running. All the seats, other than the pilot’s seat, were removed, as was the co-pilot’s side door (replaced with a concertina panel). A small foam sleeping pad was installed where the co-pilot’s seat was, and a small sink bowl was installed in the rear.
They fitted an electric pump, and a winch, to allow a re-fueling hose to be lowered to a speeding truck. They would fly low over a long straight road, chased by the re-supply vehicle which would then match speeds to allow the fuel transfer and to hoist up hot food (squashed into thermos flasks). Sadly the electric pump failed early on in the mission and required using a backup hand crank. Resupplies happened twice a day, and the refueling happened in a relatively short three minutes. Sometimes they hauled up five gallon fuel tanks instead of pumping
The two pilots in the plane were Robert Timm (a 240lb ‘bear of a man’), and John Wayne Cook. The two alternated flying in four hour shifts. After taking off, the plane flew a low pass and white paint was applied to the wheels from a chase car to ensure no cheating or ‘landing away’ was possible.
If you have every passed through the Las Vegas airport, you might have seen this plane. It’s proudly hanging from the terminal ceiling emblazoned with the hotel name “Hacienda” (the entire escapade was set up as a publicity stunt for the Hacienda Hotel).

Image: AdolfGalland
You can read more about this epic flight here.

The Space Race

In the mid 1950’s The Space Race started. The main competitors where the USA and the Soviet Union.

First Artificial Satellite

The first victory went to the Soviet Union who, in 1957, successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite.

First Animal in Space

In 1957, Laika the dog became the first animal in space, launched in the Soviet Sputnik 2. Again, America lagged behind, not launching Ham, a chimpanzee, into space until 1961.

First Man in Space

In 1961, the Soviet Union won again with the successful launch, into orbit, of Major Yuri Gagarin; the first man in space. They also launched the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963, and performed the first space walk in 1965. The Soviet Union were the first to land something on the Moon in 1959.
The time between the Wright brothers flight, and a the first man in space was just 58 years. There are 59 years between 1961 and 2020.
Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space is chronologically nearer to the first ever aircraft flight, than it is to today!
American launched Alan Sheppard into space shortly after Ham, making him the first American in Space (Sheppard would later go on to walk on the moon). Unlike Gagarin’s flight, however, Sheppard’s trip was sub-orbital; it propelled him high enough to be classified as being in space, but he went up, and came back down, without going around. The first American in orbit was John Glenn, who completed three orbits of the earth in Friendship 7, in 1962. Glenn went on to become a US Senator. He missed out on the next few decades of space travel, but returned to space at the ripe age of 77 onboard the Space Shuttle.

Lunar Landing

America’s manned space program rapidly accelerated through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and leapfrogged over the Soviet efforts. On July 20th 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. A total of 12 people have walked on the moon (the last was in 1972), almost 50 years ago! Only four moonwalkers are still alive today. Depending on how long it takes for us to go back, the next people to walk on the Moon could be the only living moonwalkers. A total of 24 people have flown higher than low earth orbit, and at the time of writing this, just 11 are still alive.

Space Station

In 1971, the first Space Station was put into orbit by the Soviets, and they also made the first soft landing on Mars.

Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle took the first flight as a reusable spacecraft.


In April 2001, Dennis Tito became the first space tourist, paying $20 million to fly to the International Space Station and back aboard a Russian Soyuz vehicle. He stayed at the orbiting lab for nearly 8 days; around $2.5 million/night!


In 2003, China launched Yang Liwei into space making China the third nation to build and deploy a manned spacecraft. This ended the American/Russion duopoly.

Resusable rocket

In 2015, the clever folks at SpaceX sent a Falcon rocket up and successfully controlled the return of its first stage back to the landing pad where it took off. Since this time, they have shown they can reliably repeat this task.