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The Significance of Airplane Development

written by: Jason C. Chavis•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 11/16/2010

The significance of development of the airplane has had widespread ramifications on the society of the world. Airplanes have changed the way people travel and conduct wars. At times, they have also been centerpieces in popular culture, influencing generations of Americans and people worldwide.

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    The Wright Brothers First Flight

    Wright Brothers First Flight 

    Perhaps the most significant development in the history of airplanes was the work of the Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville. Beginning with gliders, the duo slowly developed the concept of modern aeronautical engineering. By building a wind tunnel, the Wright Brothers were able to analyze the best options for addressing lift and drag in a series of 200 different wing designs. By 1902, they had figured out a system for building gliders that involved a design process, testing in a wind tunnel and eventually field tests.

    Eventually, the Wright Brothers moved onto powered flight with the development of the first fully-functioning airplane. They solved the traditional problems of control by inventing wing warping, combined it with better options for yaw control and improved rear rudder technology by making it steerable. By adding an internal combustion engine to the plane, the Wright Brothers first flight would enter aviation history on December 17, 1903, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. To this day, the first sustained flight is the most significant development in the history of aviation.

    Above right: Wright Brothers First Flight. (Supplied by the Library of Congress; Public Domain;

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    World War I Airplanes

    Nieuport World War I Airplane 

    The event that ultimately had one of the biggest impacts on the influence of the development of airplanes was World War I. Beginning in October 1911, Italy began using aircraft for military purposes, particularly reconnaissance, in the Italian-Turkish War. Within one month, Italy realized they could bomb enemy positions using airplanes, changing the direction of the industry forever. Military use continued through the Balkan Wars and eventually became a centerpiece in the combat of World War I, used by both the Allied and Central Powers.

    Before the war broke out, light aircraft were primarily used to take photographs of enemy positions and occasionally drop bombs. However, as more and more planes took to the sky, pilots began to use side arms to shoot at each other. Within a short period of time, guns were mounted onto World War I airplanes and pilots found themselves engaged in full-fledged combat for control of the skies. Over the course of the war, major developments advanced the technology used in aircraft. Increased aerodynamics, more durable designs and the interrupting machine gun were all developed during this time. Additionally, the amount of people trained to fly planes during the war had a major shift in the influence of the development of airplanes. Following the war, many pilots returned home and found ways to make a living off the skill they developed in the skies over Europe.

    Above left: Nieuport World War I Airplane. (Supplied by the National Library of France; Public Domain;

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    Further Development of Airplanes

    Amelia Earhart 

    During the period between both World Wars, aviation became a major attraction for the public. Famous pilots like Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart took the United States by storm, turning world records into media events. Likewise, many companies competed to make larger and more advanced planes. The development and advancement in airplane technology permeated the American and worldwide travel markets, creating the fledgling airline industry, flying passengers from place to place for a cost.

    Perhaps the largest change of course for airplanes occurred due to World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a major increase in the production of airplanes was undertaken by the United States. Over the course of the next three years during the war, more than 100,000 planes were constructed by the U.S. alone, more than all other nations combined. Many of these aircraft are still functioning today in air shows or stored in museums. Another important aspect of the war was the development of new technologies that added a new concept to the influence of the development of airplanes: the jet engine. Following the war, the jet would become the primary powerhouse for airplanes.

    Above right: Amelia Earhart. (Supplied by Alaniaris at Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain;

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    The Wright Brothers:

    World War I Airplanes and Ace Pilots:

    US Centennial of Flight Commission: