Today we are so used to agility and speed when using air transport that it feels like it has always been that way. However, air locomotion is very recent in historical terms. So much so that its origins date back to just over 250 years ago.
It was in 1782 when the brothers Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, the sons of a paper manufacturer, discovered while playing with some bags that, if they placed them upside down on a fire, they would go up to the roof. This led them to experiment until they managed to make a bag rise 250 metres. The hot-air balloon was born.
However, the hot-air balloon had no steering ability. The point of departure was known but not the point of arrival, and it was therefore inefficient as a means of transport. The first Zeppelin airships were still a long way from majestically crossing the Atlantic skies, linking Europe and America. An adventure that had a catastrophic end. But that, as Rudyard Kipling would say, is another story.
Let us therefore focus on the adventure of lifting an object heavier than air into the atmosphere. The first plane proper was created by Clément Ader in 1890, who managed to fly his Éole just 50 metres. He would later repeat the feat with Avion II (1892) and Avion III (1897).
Ader’s achievements take us back to the dawn of the 20th century. The Wright brothers, American bicycle manufacturers who have gone down in history as aviation pioneers, managed to produce an aircraft that was able to plan a short flight powered by an external catapult. Flyer – Wright BrothersThis flight served to test the turning and control system of an aircraft that would be the precursor of the mythical “Flyer”, which rose on the morning of December 17, 1903 on the windy beaches of Kitty Hawk (North Carolina) powered by a 12 HP engine.
As a curious fact, the Wright Brothers’ Flyer would be catalogued today as ULM because of its weight, and in its first flight it covered only 36.6 metres. Less than half the length of a current Airbus A380 (73 metres).
Although the Wright Brothers are universally considered the official precursors of controlled motor flight, the truth is that Brazil claims that its compatriot Alberto Santos Dumond, who on 23 October 1906 – three years after the Americans – made a 60-metre flight in which an aircraft took off without any assistance and using only its own motive power, is the true pioneer of air transport as we know it. Right or Dumond? The controversy is served.
The truth is that both the Wright brothers and Santos Dumont encouraged interest in continuing to advance the development of new and better aircraft. The world was not yet aware that the century that was just beginning was going to turn it into the scene of two bloody wars that were going to boost the development of air machines in an unsuspected way, as a weapon of war and not as a means of transport.
In 1916, at the height of the First World War, the German company Junkers produced a prototype of a metal aircraft. The Junkers J1, better known as the “Donkey Tin” was a milestone in history. From then on, stronger metal alloys began to be integrated into the fuselages, which until then had mainly been made of wood and fabric. The plane became more resistant, and at the same time a better combat weapon.
Before the start of the first great war in Europe, the first commercial flights were operated in the United States in 1911 to transport mail. In Europe in 1918, shortly before the end of the war, Pierre-Georges Latécoère set up an airline for postal transport, initially linking France with Senegal via Spain and Morocco, and later across the Atlantic to Rio-Recife in Brazil. An aviation “ace” of the First World War, Antoine de Saint-Exupéri – the author of the world-famous “The Little Prince” – flew for the Latécoère lines.
Passenger flights in Europe began in 1919, and in the space of time “between wars” most of the European “flag” airlines that have survived to this day were founded. Iberia (1927), or Air France (1939) saw the light of day in those years. In the same year, 1919, the first transatlantic flight with stopovers between Canada and Ireland was made. Eight years later, the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic was made.
The 1930s saw a breakthrough in civil aviation. Not only did aircraft have greater cargo capacity and range, but telecommunications and air navigation equipment were improved.
From that moment on, and with the arrival first of the large four-engine aircraft such as the Lockheed “Supercostellation” and later the first pressurised cabin jets and improvements such as the implementation of the automatic pilot (Autopilot) – developed in 1912 by the Sperry Corporation, but with hardly any application in commercial aviation until then – contributed to the consolidation of the aircraft as the hegemonic global means of transport that we know today.
After the end of World War II, commercial aviation evolved for the first time independently from military aviation.
The first commercial jet in aviation history was the De Havilland Comet. In 1952, the Comet was capable of flying at 850km/h and was fitted with a pressurised cabin, a major breakthrough that allowed it to rise to hitherto prohibitive flight levels while avoiding much of the weather that could make flying uncomfortable or dangerous.
However, it would be the American Boeing that would make the great qualitative leap towards what we now understand by commercial flights with the Boeing 707. The first large four-engine jet for the transport of passengers and cargo in the history of modern aviation.
The actor John Travolta, an experienced commercial pilot as well as an actor, had the rare privilege of owning and flying one of those precursors of modern air travel. Travolta’s 707 was donated to the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society of Australia in 2017.
However, it was not until the second half of the last century, with the appearance of the Boeing B747 – the “jumbo-jet” – and the creation of the Airbus Consortium on the other side of the Atlantic, that commercial aviation took off completely, making the leap to large-capacity aircraft such as the aforementioned B787, or years later the A380, or launched into the conquest of supersonic civil flight by the now-defunct Concorde.
This necessarily cursory review of some of the milestones in the history of air transport has attempted to describe the technological progress that society has undergone for the benefit of the transport of goods and passengers by air. These advances were mainly made in the 20th century but have contributed to decisively shaping the reality of the 21st century.