Man Conquers the Air
Early Flight Attempts
For almost as long as history has been recorded, there have been attempts by humans to find some way to fly. The ancient Greek myth of Icarus is one of the earliest surviving recorded stories about human preoccupation with flight. The tale begins with Daedalus held captive on Crete in a Labyrinth, a device that he invented. Daedalus made wings of wax and covered them with feathers so that he could escape the walls of the labyrinth with his son, Icarus. Daedalus cautioned Icarus not to fly too near the sun or else the wings would melt. The ability to fly excited Icarus and he forgot the warning and flew too near the sun. The wax melted as predicted, sending Icarus plummeting to his death in the Aegean Sea.
Flight captivated the human imagination probably more than any other dream. Several people died trying to fly, usually from catapulting off high places in fits of overconfidence that their inventions would actually work. It was not until well into the industrial revolution, however, that technology, scientific understanding and new materials made flight a more realistic possibility. One of the major problems that was encountered by would-be aviators was the lack of a practical power source for any type of aircraft.
The military potential for any type of flight was recognized early on and many of the earliest experiments were funded by militaries. Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman, realized the military potential of balloons when he first saw a Montgolfier on its first flight in 1783. Franklin was in Paris in November 1783 working on a peace treaty with Britain to end the war in America and was able to watch the first balloon flight from his hotel window. He was very interested in flight and predicted that balloons would be used for military spying and bombing. This proved to be an accurate assessment and balloons were useful for those purposes as well as their critical role in spotting targets for artillery.
Technical advances in ballooning came about largely through their military uses. This trend continued beyond the 1960s, when special balloons were used for high altitude research. Some of the earliest satellites were more nearly balloons than anything else.
The earliest airships were developed with military purposes in mind and more of them have been made for military purposes than any other, even forty years after the last military airship was retired. There is always the possibility that some military application will require an airship again. Some unmanned aircraft, known as drones, may benefit from buoyant gas to improve lift.
Many of the early developers of heavier-than-air flight looked to militaries for uses and funding for their inventions before the plans left the drawing board. Militaries funded several aircraft developers, especially in the late 19th century, but failed demonstrations caused great skepticism by the time the Wright brothers were able to fly predictably. Although the Wright brothers visualized military uses for their invention early on, after they mastered the air it took several years to convince the US Army to invest in aircraft. At that time, the Army was very skeptical of aviators after having received much bad publicity for investing US$50,000 in Samuel Langley’s waterlogged Aerodromes.
After the first aircraft became a reality, military uses continually pushed the capabilities of this device to a higher level. In order to improve upon the scant reliability of early aircraft, militaries funded research and development of aircraft technology. The design and construction of aircraft was an intuitive discipline until shortly before World War I. As war loomed in Europe, militaries invested heavily in developing this new technology.
In the United States as well as everywhere else, endeavors to produce better airplanes through intuition alone caused a great deal of frustration. A plethora of physical problems and phenomena about the atmosphere and flight were discovered through military uses of aircraft. In the early days of aviation, Aircraft designers had no data that could be used for improving the designs of aircraft. In answer to these problems and because airplanes had become such important military hardware on the brink of World War I, the US Congress established the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, commonly known as the NACA in 1915. Part of the reason for this was that the United States had fallen far behind several European countries in aviation technology since the Wright brothers had first flown.
Upon its inception in 1915, the NACA began to assimilate scientific data about every conceivable variable in aircraft design so that a scientific method of designing aircraft could be found. The NACA was equipped with a budget and equipment that independent inventors could not even imagine. NACA installed several wind tunnels and tested every conceivable variable of every imaginable component of an aircraft. To conduct its research, the NACA set up a new facility named the Langley Memorial Laboratory at Tidewater, Virginia. In reality, this was the beginning of Aeronautical Engineering. In these respects, every modern aircraft as well as many other items owes its design to the NACA.
Although the NACA also had civilian objectives, its primary purpose was to create better military aircraft. It is important to remember that there were few civilian applications for aviation until well after World War I and that military capabilities are generally at least 10 years ahead of civilian technology. The working relationship between the NACA and the Department of Defense was very close.
Mostly after World War II, covert military and Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, operations were conducted using the NACA as a cover. This soon politicized the role of the NACA, especially on the international level. Because of this and other considerations caused by the Cold War as well as the changing demands that came with rocket development, the NACA was reformulated into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, in 1958. This was intended to give NASA the appearance of being a civilian organization.
As aircraft began to be a practical mode of transportation, the military role in their development actually increased. After World War I, cheap surplus military airplanes and aircraft engines gave civilian aviation a push start. The airplanes used for barnstorming and the earliest regular airmail service were military surplus planes.
Civilian aviation owes far more of its existence to military development, however, because nearly all aspects of an aircraft’s design were derived from elements of military research. Virtually all helicopters are military designs that were converted to civilian use. Even today, most airplanes, and especially large aircraft, are the result of military design. In the case of large commercial airliners, nearly all of them were originally a military design that was converted to civilian use. In some cases, the original design was rejected by the military and in others it is possible to find the same model of plane serving in military use.