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The Towering Figures of Aviation History

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 1/1/2015

Hopping onto a plane and criss-crossing the continents is a straightforward affair. But behind the comfortably furnished fuselages and complimentary nuts lies an inspirational history full of pioneering people, machines, achievements, and breakthrough moments

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    Fasten your seat belts and settle in for a comfortable cruise through aviation history to meet some of the key engineers, designers, pilots and companies that got us off the ground.

    This guide to the pioneers of aviation is a celebration of the men and women of aviation history and their awe-inspiring accomplishments; from the design and development of the first hot air balloons, to powered planes, transatlantic adventures and the first commercial passenger planes.

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    Key Achievements of Aviation Pioneers

    Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Orville and Wilbur Wright, five towering figures in the history of aviation who let their imaginations soar to make lasting impacts on the history of manned flight. Chart some of their greatest achievements and failures in this brief overview.

    A Brief History of Hot Air and Gas Balloons

    You have to start somewhere, and the first hot air balloon flights toward the end of the 18th century were no joy rides. They were important steps in the history of human flight.

    The First Powered Flight by the Wright Brothers

    The actual flight may not have lasted long, but that's not important. On December 17 1903 the Wright Brothers made history as for the first time a powered plane had taken off from level ground, flew through the air and landed under the control of the pilot (on this day it was Orville Wright at the controls).

    Early German Aviation Pioneers

    Some of the big names in German aviation made important and long-standing contributions to the development of manned flight. Among their number was Gustave Whitehead who some believe made a controlled powered flight a full two years before the Wright Brothers.

    Legendary Flying Aces

    Meet some of the courageous and magnificent men and women and their flying machines including the Montgolfier Brothers and Amelia Earhart.

    Engineers that Changed the World: Igor Sykorsky

    This inspirational and innovative engineer scored a number of aviation firsts, including creating the first functional helicopter, the first flying boats, the first four engine plane, and re-designing the first four engine bombers.

    Ace in the Sky - The Red Baron

    The daredevil flying ace the Red Baron was a German fighter pilot during World War I. He's probably the most famous fighter pilot ever known, and during his short career was credited with 80 combat kills. His skill and strategic planning in the air made him a much feared adversary and a useful propoganda tool.

    Airplanes Flown by Amelia Earhart

    The world-famous aviatrix took to the skies in a small number of planes including the Curtiss JN4-Jenny and the Lockheed Electra 10E, the last plane she flew on her ill-fated flight and which has never been found.

    The Rise and Fall of Pan Am

    Founded by aviation pioneer Major Henry H. Arnold, Pan Am was the largest international air carrier in the United States, and for much of the twentieth century its most successful. However, this success was not to last and the company was forced to declare bankrupcy in 1991.

    Spotlight on the Curtiss Airplane

    Glenn Hammon Curtiss was an aviation pioneer and one of the founders of the US aircraft industry. Among the most famous planes to be developed by his company are The Jenny and the P-4- Flying Tigers.

    The Stearman Biplane

    The Stearman biplane has earned its place in aviation history for a number of notable achievements. At one time it was one of the airline industry's most widely used mass-produced planes, and during WWII the biplanes were amongst the first aircraft introduced into the military that women were permitted to fly.

    A Fantastic Fighter: The Sopwith Camel

    This single-seat biplane fighter was introduced during WWI and though tricky to handle (which led to the deaths of many trainee pilots) could outmaneuver many contemporary planes. It is credited with shooting down more than 1,200 enemy aircraft, more than any other allied fighter during the war.

    History of the Airplane Assembly Line

    Prior to WWI most planes were built as specially commissioned one-off projects. But necessity is the mother invention and soon planes were needed in ever greater numbers and so assembly line methods had to be developed to keep up with demand. And leading the way was a car manufacturer - Ford Motor Company.

    The History of the de Haviland Comet

    The world's first commercial jet airliner was developed and manufactured in the UK. In the 1950s, an era where trains and ships were the dominant means of long-term travel it was an immediate hit. However, its popularity did not last as the comet suffered a string of engineering problems and accidents.

    The Development of Aircraft Safety

    Onboard safety has been of great concern since the early days of manned flight. Many safety features have been designed in response to accidents and emergencies, and amongst others things have been installed to minimise human error, metal fatigue and the impact of natural phenomena.