In This Issue
Centennial of Aviation
March 1, 2004 Volume 34 Issue 1

Remembering the Legacy: Highlights of the First 100 Years of Aviation

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Richard P. Hallion

We must commit ourselves to remaining an aerospace nation and to reinvigorating the aerospace industry.

There are many lessons to be learned, both positive and negative, from the first 100 years of flight.1 On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright completed the world’s first powered, sustained, and controlled heavier-than-air flight, covering 120 feet (less than the wingspan of a jetliner) in 12 seconds. Many today believe the myth that the Wrights were "mere" bicycle mechanics who decided on a whim to make the first airplane. In fact, they were well trained by the standards of the day, thoroughly documented everything they did, and were intimately familiar with pioneering work that had gone on before. They first demonstrated their ideas on kites, then moved on to a succession of gliders, regrouped and did significant wind tunnel research, refined their ideas, and finally moved to the 1903 powered machine. The Wrights then built upon their success to improve aircraft, leading to their first successful military machine, the 1909 Flyer.

But the seeds of their failure as entrepreneurs were already germinating. Not only were they wedded to the marginally stable (at best) "tail-first" configuration, they were also vastly overconfident and curiously reluctant to move beyond their original configuration with its modest performance. In addition, very few could fly this airplane as well as they could. By mid-1909, they had become increasingly distracted by emerging rivals, and they launched (not without reason) a series of controversial patent suits that did little but inhibit the growth of America’s aircraft industry.

Combined with lukewarm government interest, the stage was set for predictable disaster. By 1912, America had fallen behind Europe in aviation; indeed, by mid-1908, before the Wrights had ever flown overseas, the French had developed inherently stable aircraft designs, notably the Farman and the Bl?riot, that would enjoy greater market success than Wright aircraft. In 1912, French airmen came to the United States and won the Gordon Bennett speed trophy in the Deperdussin Monocoque Racer, without facing any American opposition. In short, Europe was on the road to the streamlined monoplane while America was still in the open-framework, birdcage era.

As American aviation continued to decline at an alarming rate up to and through the First World War, foreign aircraft (such as the Bl?riot) and design practices and standards (including foreign-derived wing and airfoil shapes) were imported. Indeed, America’s best known airplane of the First World War, the Curtiss Jenny, was designed by a British engineer who had been lured to America. Overseas, American airmen flew fighters, bombers, and observation airplanes of French or British or Italian origin. We excelled in only one area - the design of long-range, maritime-patrol flying boats, which led to America’s next great international accomplishment in aviation, the first flight across the North Atlantic, by the Navy’s NC-4 in 1919.

American indebtedness to Europe persisted after WWI. Our military and civilian workhorse in the 1920s was Britain’s ubiquitous De Havilland D.H. 4, a bomber and reconnaissance airplane turned mail plane; and American fighter pilots flew French SPADs and American-built versions of the British S.E. 5 well into the 1920s. In short, our long and painful recovery (which was not foreordained) took more than 25 years, from 1910 to approximately 1938. Bluntly speaking, we benefited from the disastrous economic circumstances and postwar chaos in Europe that prevented the Europeans from taking full advantage of their technical and organizational superiority in aeronautics.

The pervasive European influence on American aviation ranged from technical visits to the United States and exchanges of ideas by prominent technologists to the "brain drain" migration of leading Europeans, foremost among them Max Munk, Theodore von K?rm?n, Anthony Fokker, and Igor Sikorsky. Exposure to these forward-looking thinkers encouraged American designers to adapt and exploit the latest European structural and aerodynamic practices, exemplified by the wooden (and later all-metal) monocoque structure and the cantilever wood (later metal) wing. In addition, American governmental and academic organizations adopted the European models for aeronautical laboratories and academic institutions. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (deliberately patterned on Britain’s Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) rose to research preeminence thanks largely to Munk and his variable-density wind tunnel. The philanthropical largesse of the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, which established schools of European-style aeronautical engineering across the nation, profoundly influenced the reshaping and redirection of American aviation and facilitated Theodore von K?rm?n’s coming to the United States.

The rapid development of air transport in Europe encouraged federal legislation (especially the Kelly Act of 1925 and the Air Commerce Act of 1926) that stimulated American commercial air transport. Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris in 1927 generated a healthy "air mindedness" among Americans, that benefited airmail and passenger-carrying services. The broad plains were ideally suited for commercial aviation, which led to the rise of Wichita as the center of America’s light aircraft industry. In this supportive climate, designers rapidly exploited advances in streamlining and structures and applied them first to technology demonstrators and then to practical aircraft. Air-racing airplanes, which constituted the "X-series" of this time period, tested developments in engines and aerodynamics and new structural configurations.

By the early 1930s, American air transport aircraft were challenging the dominance of European aircraft. This was dramatically illustrated by a 1934 England-to-Australia air race, when "off-the-shelf" Douglas and Boeing airliners finished a close second and third behind a special-purpose British racer. Both American airplanes reflected the influence of John K. "Jack" Northrop, the most important American designer of his time. Northrop is primarily remembered today for his disappointing (if prescient) work on flying wings, but he was the key individual between the wars in reshaping conventional American aeronautics. His advanced all-metal wing design, which drew heavily on European structural work, set a design standard that was emulated by Boeing, Douglas, Lockheed, and other manufacturers.

By the late 1930s, American airliners (typified by the DC-3) represented the "gold standard" of air transport design. The industry had grown tremendously, and America had become the largest manufacturer and exporter of aircraft in the world. European nations began to buy American airliners, a practice that would continue until the advent of Airbus. Industry in general expanded exponentially to meet growing foreign demand; exports rose almost 70-fold to $627 million in 1941 (roughly equivalent to $7.6 billion today). Exports played a key role in keeping the aircraft industry thriving, even in the midst of the Great Depression; in 1937 exports constituted 34 percent of total American aviation sales.

During the Second World War, America was justly called the "Arsenal of Democracy," and nowhere was that more evident than in the American contribution to Allied airpower. The United States furnished almost 300,000 airplanes to its own and foreign services, more than twice as many as were built by its nearest competitor, the Soviet Union, and nearly 60 percent more than the combined wartime production of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy.

Arguably, this statistic reflects above all the American genius for building a "systems of systems" approach, whether for technology integration, military operations, or the training and organization of combat and industrial forces. The knack for concept refinement, industrial organization, and output could be con-sidered the great strength of American aviation, the "American genius" of the aircraft revolution. Some other nations produced very fine, advanced machines, but overall, the United States produced the best bombers, fighters, transports, trainers, and naval aircraft. Our enemies were overwhelmed by the extent to which we produced easily maintained, high-quality, "user-friendly" aircraft literally by the thousands. For example, neither friend nor foe produced a single long-range bomber equal to any of the four bombers we fielded in combat - the B-17, B-24, B-29 and B-32.

We emerged from WWII, as we had from WWI, as the dominant global economic power, a nation essentially untouched by the destructiveness of war (save for the human losses and suffering of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen and their families) with a robust, vigorous aeronautical industry. From the standpoint of prototyping and production, the postwar years were a "Golden Age" for American aviation. We adapted to the jet age, pioneered transonic and supersonic flight, and continued to increase our dominance in the field of international air transport. By the mid-1970s, American aviation was in a dominant position in many fields, and research was under way that promised to continue that trend into the 1980s and beyond. Our new military aircraft were at least a generation, and sometimes two, ahead of any adversary’s aircraft, and would prove their worth in the conflicts of the 1990s. Our airliners - particularly the 747 - reshaped international air commerce. Our general aviation industry was producing upwards of 17,000 airplanes per year and selling them around the globe. And in space, we landed teams of astronauts on the moon, setting the stage for the post-Apollo space program.

To recap, then, America invented the airplane in 1903, allowed other nations to get well ahead, and then spent a quarter-century catching up before we secured, once again, the dominant place in international aeronautics. Could this pattern be repeated? Well, actually, it was! We have been "scooped" many times, even when, as with the Wrights, we did the pioneering work in a technology field. For example, we did not pioneer radar, liquid-fuel rockets, ballistic and cruise missiles, precision air weapons, the turbojet engine, the jet fighter/bomber/airliner, the swept-wing (which forced hasty redesign of the B-47 and F-86), Earth satellites, or the human presence in space. These scoops didn’t merely cause us national embarrassment (Sputnik being the most infamous example), they also endangered our national security.

Indeed, we arguably benefited after World War II, just as we did after World War I, from our raw economic power and an industrial base untouched by war. In the short-term, other nations were unable to maintain their dominance in turbojet propulsion and high-speed aerodynamics. Thus, we were able to "catch up" rapidly and forge ahead, even though being a "fast second" is not an ideal way to operate.

The Centennial of Flight Report Card
In November 2002, the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, chaired by former Representative Robert Walker and former Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters, warned that "We stand dangerously close to squandering the advantage bequeathed to us by prior generations of aerospace leaders. We must reverse this trend and march steadily towards rebuilding the industry. The time for action is now."

Ironically, as we celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of Kitty Hawk, we must concede that there has been a truly appalling decline in American aeronautics over the last quarter-century - since, equally ironically, we opened the National Air and Space Museum with much fanfare in 1976. When we ask ourselves a basic and very uncomfortable question - how we have done as stewards of the aerospace health of this country - the answer is not very well.

What we have lost over the last 25 years calls down serious judgment upon our national aeronautical and space research and development establishment, including the government, corporate, and academic communities. We often say studying the past informs the decisions of the future, but, in truth, it rarely does. Rigorous assessments of aerospace - where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going - have been rare. (One notable and welcome exception was the Air Force’s New World Vistas study in 1995, which was launched by then-Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall and chaired by Gene McCall of the Scientific Advisory Board.) Examples of changes in American aerospace can shed some light on the challenges confronting us today.

From a VJ-Day high of 47 major airplane manufacturers, we have winnowed down the field to five. Industry employment has plummeted by nearly 50 percent (611,000 fewer workers) since the end of the Cold War. Twenty-six percent of the remaining workforce of 689,000 will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.

Our investment in aeronautical research continues to decline (50 percent since 1987). In addition, the number of American students studying air and space subjects in colleges and universities has decreased nearly 60 percent since 1990.
Our general aviation industry has essentially been destroyed (Figure 1), largely as a result of frivolous lawsuits, and is only now very slowly recovering, thanks to the General Aviation Recovery Act (GARA). Some product lines and firms have disappeared or (like Learjet) been acquired by foreign companies.

American market dominance in global air transport has disappeared, for the first time since the advent of the practical airliner. Of the top four manufacturers of airliners, only one, Boeing, is American; the other three are Airbus (European), Embraer (Brazilian), and Bombardier (Canadian). American dominance in commercial helicopters, once taken for granted, has also evaporated in the face of innovative design and marketing by foreign partnerships.

Our once-unquestioned dominance in space has declined as well. U.S. commercial space exports have fallen 75 percent in just three years. In 2002, only 14 percent of the engines flown into space were American built. Eighteen percent came from Europe, and 61 percent from the former Soviet Union; the rest came from Asia. Our space capabilities are still largely rooted in the derivatives of first-generation ICBMs and IRBMs, one of which (the Atlas III) has recently been redesigned to use Russian engines.

Undoubtedly it would surprise the public, after a decade of well publicized military triumphs, to learn that our traditional dominance in military aviation has also been eroded. If our military airplanes were automobiles, most of them would bear classic car plates. Consequently, we are facing serious safety issues, ranging from potentially catastrophic structural failures to wide-area metal corrosion - sort of an aerospace osteoporosis. Our fighters - the F-14, F-15, F-16, F/A-18, A-10, and AV-8 - have all been flying for more than a quarter-century. In theory, and perhaps now in fact, a fighter pilot could be "pulling g’s" in a fighter that was manufactured and flying before he or she was born. Crew members of bombers and tankers could be - and perhaps in some cases are - the grandchildren of the original crew members. Even the stealth fighter, the F-117, entered operational service 20 years ago, in October 1983.

Disturbingly, American air dominance, the sine qua non of our combat operations, is no longer a given. In February 2003, Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche and Air Force Chief of Staff General John P. Jumper warned of a growing performance gap between older American fighter planes and newer foreign fighter planes. "Our guy flying their airplane beats our guy flying our airplane every single time," General Jumper noted; Secretary Roche affirmed that, in one case, we were dependent solely upon "the advantage provided by our extraordinary pilots." This is a worrisome situation we have not seen since before Pearl Harbor.

Beginning in 2010, as the "baby boomer" generation ages, outlays for age and retirement-related expenses will rise dramatically, together with other obligations, such as interest on the national debt. Unlike discretionary spending, which is optional, these costs will have to be paid. We are purchasing today the production capabilities for tomorrow’s multiyear modernization of both military and civilian aerospace; but, once the crisis hits, it is questionable if we will actually have the money we need for these systems, either for aircraft, like the F/A-22, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs), and new helicopter and vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft, or for new systems, such as hypersonics and reusable and reliable space-lift vehicles. Personally, I don’t think we will; indeed, the F/A-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter have already experienced significant delays and reductions in procurement. The coming crunch will force us to make very difficult choices over the next seven years just to adjust to the challenging research, development, and acquisition world we will face after 2010. But we do have a grace period of a few years to prepare, if we are prudent enough to take advantage of it.

The greatest challenge of all, however, is not declining market share, competitiveness, and military dominance, or even economics. The biggest challenge is mind-set. We must excite our youth about the air and space field, particularly to the challenges ahead. It was "air mindedness" that offset the dreadful decline in American aviation after the Wrights, and it was "aerospace mindedness" that offset the dramatic impact of Sputnik nearly four decades later. But students today are increasingly opting to study life sciences, a result, at least partly, of four decades of proselytizing in elementary and secondary schools. Faced with declining enrollments, many schools are closing engineering laboratories, even as they build life sciences laboratories.

Our Future as "An Aerospace Nation"

If we fail to attract dedicated young people, the aerospace industry will not have an American future, and our repeated claims of being "an aerospace nation" will ring increasingly hollow and false. We must excite our young people with new concepts that take us beyond the tired solutions of the past. We must be willing to shatter existing paradigms and patterns, whether the primacy of the "tube-and-wing" airliner or the notion that we have reached a plateau on speed. Why shouldn’t we challenge ourselves to go beyond the transonic? Since the Industrial Revolution, the history of mass mobility has been a history of increasing speed: the animal-pulled cart, the locomotive, the airplane: 6 mph in 1800, 60 mph in 1900, 600 mph in 2000. Might we not expect 6,000 mph in 2100? At the very least, we must explore the promise of a blended wing-body transport, an ocean-crossing supersonic business jet, and then a genuine, hypersonic, globe-girdling transport.

Some will argue that there is "no need" for these aircraft, no "customer demand," that "we can’t afford to bet the company," that these ideas are "too revolutionary," much the way critics once argued against airliners in favor of long-distance trains. In response, we might note, as W. Edwards Deming famously said, that no one ever asked for the light bulb or the pneumatic tire, the steam engine, the locomotive, the airplane, the PC, etc. Certainly, there was no defined need for a global air transport system when the Wrights invented the airplane; had they advanced such an idea, even after Kitty Hawk, many would have thought them mad. The American aviation industry predominated because now-legendary figures, such as Jack Northrop, Igor Sikorsky, Donald Douglas, Walter Beech, Bill Allen, and many others, were willing to bet their companies and did so more than once.

Let us at least have the fortitude to explore some of the alternatives to today’s aircraft, including new and more efficient subsonic general aviation and air transport airplanes (particularly blended wing-body designs), supersonic business jets (and possibly larger follow-ons), and hypersonic demonstrators that might extend the "6-60-600" rule to Mach 8 or 9 by the turn of the next century (Figures 2-5). And if some believe these are "too revolutionary," let us remember, in the words of Dr. Gene McCall and Maj. Gen. John Corder in the New World Vistas study, "Most revolutionary ideas will be opposed by a majority of decision makers."

To echo the final report of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, the time for action is now. On this anniversary, we should affirm our commitment to remaining an aerospace nation and to reinvigorating an industry that is vital to our future. The best way to honor the Wrights and all of those who revolutionized the world through the air is by pushing ahead - and by ensuring that we do not repeat the mistakes and misjudgments of the past.

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See PDF version for figures.

1 The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author alone and should not be interpreted as representing an official position of the U.S. Department of Defense.

About the Author:Richard P. Hallion is a senior advisor to the U.S. Air Force for air and space issues.