From 1914 to 1918, World War I resulted in the transformation of aircraft from slow, frail vehicles into agile, capable fighting machines. The governments of the world began to see the military potential of air power, leading to tremendous progress, particularly in the fields of engine technology  and aerodynamics. Although Wright Aircraft had produced the first military airplanes in 1908, only limited numbers of military aircraft existed at the  beginning of the war and these were used primarily for reconnaissance. All that changed in 1915, when Germany produced the first purpose-built fighters. Almost immediately, it seemed, all military aircraft were being equipped with guns, leading to the  emergence of air-to-air combat, or “dogfighting”. This period also saw the introduction of bombers. Initially, pilots had simply carried bombs on their laps until they reached their target, at which point they would drop them over the side by hand. This rather ineffective procedure was rendered obsolete with the development of large aircraft that could carry multiple bombs and drop them from internal cargo areas known as bomb bays. By the end of the war, over a thousand bombers had been built, with the later models capable of flying more than a thousand miles and carrying 7,500-pound payloads. After the end of World War I, some of the newly unemployed pilots purchased war surplus aircraft and made a living by “barnstorming.” Flying from town to town, they took people for rides, and gave daredevil aerobatic performances that afforded many people their first look at an actual aircraft. Other pilots used former military planes to transport mail across the country and around the world. Passenger flight, meanwhile, was neither popular nor profitable: The aircraft were too small, and the people too fearful. Public awareness of the potential of air travel took a major leap forward in 1927 with Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of  St. Louis.

The first practical passenger airplanes were developed not long after, and included “flying boats.” These planes, the largest of which could carry over forty passengers, were designed to land on water, since runways had not yet been built to accommodate aircraft of this size. Also beginning to appear were smaller passenger planes, such as the Ford Tri-Motor and the Douglas DC-3 , that could land on existing runways. Aircraft technology advanced rapidly through the 1930s, with aluminum (sturdy yet light)  replacing wood and fabric, and one-wing designs replacing the two-wing structures The airplane was just becoming a commercial success as war clouds began to gatther over Europe.

By the late 1930s, Germany and Japan were  building their air forces at a feverish pace. When World War II broke out in 1989, Germany’s formidable air force, the Luftwaffe, equipped with vast number of superior aircraft, overwhelmed the air forces of  most of Europe. The following year. Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) began a desperate attempt to repel the Luftwaffe in what would become known as the Battle of Britain. Production of military aircraft in the United States surged to support the air struggle over Britain, and also to supply aircraft to Russia. On December 14, 1941, .Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, launching the United States into battle in the Pacific as well as in Europe. New fighting aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang  were quickly developed and produced by the thousands. By 1943, American aircraft manufacturers were turning out planes in record numbers, while the enemy’s factories were being bombed. U.S. carrier-based aircraft played a crucial role in turning the tide of the war in the Pacific, devastating Japan’s navy at the Battle of Midway. Fast and heavily armored American aircraft such as the Grununan Hellcat and the Vouglit Corsair began to dominate Japanese  fighters such as the Mitsubishi Zero, allowing the American Navy to advance toward Japan. Longrange bombing by B-17s and B-24s in Europe and B-29s in the Pacific crippled the ability of Germany and Japan to continue fighting. The final act of the war occurred in August 1945 when B-29 bombers dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to the Japanese surrender on August 15.

Although jet engines had appeared in experimental German and English planes at the beginning of World War II, the only jet aircraft to play a significant role in the conflict was the German Messerschmitt Me-262, capable of flying 100 m.p.h. faster than its nearest competition. Following the war, the United States and Russia each obtained jet-engine technology from the British, and swept-wing technology from the Germans, to create a new geneation of airborne machines. The resulting American and Russian fighters first faced off over Korea on November 7, 1950, when an American F-80 shot down a Russian MiG-15. Although aircraft performance was comparable on both sides during the Korean War, American pilots were more successful thanks to their superior training. This new generation of aircraft introduced a new problem—the “sound barrier.” Flying at almost Mach 1 (the speed of sound, approximately 700 m.p.h.) could cause an aircraft to become uncontrollable, and even disintegrate. On October 14,1947, Chuck Yeager overcame this obstacle by flying the experimental X 1 to a speed of Mach 1.06—the first supersonic flight.

“X” Stands for Experimental 

The X planes were created by NASA to research new aircraft technology, beginning with the X-l, which pioneered supersonic flight. A modifiedversion called the X-1A reached Mach 2.4 in December 1953, and was followed in 1956 by the X-2. Though it reached Mach 3.2, the X-2’s instability at this speed resulted in a fatal crash. The fastest of the group was the North American X-15, which Hew to Mach 6.72 (4,530 m.p.h.) and climbed to an altitude of 354,200 feet, or 67 miles. In fact, the X-15 flew high enough to earn three pilots their astronaut’s wings. NASA has used these craft to experiment with everything from vertical flight, to wing shapes, to new fighter and rocket technology, and is now at work on the X-45.


Immediately after World War II, most of the world’s airlines started to put war surplus DC-3s to commercial use. At the same time, manufacturers began using technology developed during the war to make larger and longer-range airliners such as the Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-6, which were able to accommodate over 80 passengers and fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. England was the first country to introduce a jet-powered airliner, the
dellavilland Comet in 19o2. Although years ahead of its competition in the United States, the Comet lost credibility after experiencing several crashes, allowing the American-made Boeing 7(17 and Douglas DC-8 to become the jet airliners of choice by 1960. Bombers, in fact, made the transition to jet power before airliners. The massive B-36, introduced in 1946, boasted four jet as well as six propeller engines, and was followed the next year by the first all-jet bomber, the Boeing B-47. Although over 100 ln.p.h. taster than the B-36, it lacked the range necessary to replace its predecessor. The B which first tlew in lOfvl. combined both speed and range—a winning formula that has earned it a key continuing role in America’s airborne defense. The long-range jet bombers developed by both England and the Soviet Union during this same period, meanwhile, have been replaced by nuclear missiles. The United States has developed experimental supersonic bombers like the XB-70, which was capable of Mach 3 speeds. But it proved too expensive, and too vulnerable to enemy defenses, to justify putting it into production.

The last twenty years have seen the introduction of the B-1 bomber and the B-2 “stealth” bomber, though only in limited numbers. Between the Korean War in the \(M)s and the Vietnam War in the 1960s, fighter aircraft grew rapidly in speed, size, and |m »wer. In the United States, these fighters become known as the Century series, ranging from the F-100 Super Saber to the F 106 Delta Dart. In the Soviet Union, jet fighters evolved from the MiG-15 to the Mach 2-capable MiG-21. During the Vietnam War, the fighter of choice for the Americans was the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, known for its ruggedness, speed, and ability to carry a large weapon load, but not for its agility. This shortcoming was addressed in the 1970s with the introduction of the F-14, F-15 (see page 46), F-16, and F-18, which combined speed with maneuverability. The Soviets unveiled the Mach 3 MiG-25 and the more versatile MiG-23/27 during this period, but the agility of the American planes would remain unrivaled until the appearance, in the 1980s, of the MiG-29 and Su-27.

European fighters of this time such as the Panavia Tornado, the French Mirage, and the Saab Viggen followed the same trends. The Lockheed F-22 Raptor, which made its maiden flight in 11M)7, combines speed, maneuverability, and stealth technology, representing the next generation of fighter aircraft.

What About Space Flight?

Although the Chinese developed the first rockets eight hundred years ago, the development of rockets for space flight did not begin until the 1930s. At that time Robert Goddard in the United States, Wernher von Braim in Germany, and Sergei Korolev in the Soviet Union all pioneered liquid-fueled rockets. After World War II, the race began in earnest, with Korolev’s team the first to orbit a satellite (Sputnik, on October 4, 1957), and von Braun’s team, now working in the States, following suit on February 1, 1958. Korolev’s team was also credited with getting the first man into space, in 1961, with the United States hard on their heels later that same year. It took another eight years to get a man on the moon, America being the only country to have done so to date. Space exploration has also sent unmanned probes to all the planets in the solar system except Pluto. The Soviet Union led the way in the use of space stations, while the United States pioneered the reusable space shuttle. Today the United States, Russia, and many other nations are joining forces to construct the International Space Station.