A century of flight

This week’s science column…

A Century of Flight

Copyright 2003 by Edward Willett

This week, as people are flying home (or wherever) for Christmas, I hope they spare a thought for the two bicycle makers who made it all possible 100 years ago.

On December 17, 1903, at 10:35 a.m., a fragile craft took off from a windswept sand dune near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It flew for just 12 seconds, but a century later, its design is echoed in every airplane you see.

Orville and Wilbur Wright built kites as boys, studied birds as they grew older, and closely followed the career of Otto Lilienthal, the German aviation pioneer who made more than 2,000 flights in gliders–then died when one of his gliders stalled and fell from the sky.

Orville and Wilbur knew that buzzards never stalled, and deduced it was because they could keep themselves balanced and in control by twisting their wingtips. They built that capability into their own gliders, which allowed them to bank left or right–and convinced them controlled powered human flight was possible.

They made hundreds of glider flights, gradually improving their control systems. They added a rear rudder for left-right steering, and an elevator–in their design, mounted at the front–for up-down control. They realized they could achieve more lift by curving the wings.

They built their own lightweight 12-horsepower gasoline engine, and made twin propellers for it. They tossed a coin to see who would get the honor of the first flight. Wilbur won, but ploughed into the ground immediately on take-off. Orville got the next chance–and made history.

The twisting wing-tips of the Wright flyer have mutated today into the ailerons, those small moveable sections near the tips of the wings, that cause the wings to move up or down by deflecting the flow of air. The elevator is now usually found on the trailing edge of the horizontal part of the tail of a typical airplane; the rudder is on the vertical “fin” of the tail.

The descendants of the Wrights’ creation carried more than 1.3 billion passengers last year. And the spiritual descendants of the Wrights continue to try to come up with better ways to fly. So what does the future hold for airplanes?

For one thing, fewer pilots. Remotely piloted aircraft have made news for their military roles. As computer technology advances, we’re going to see more unmanned aerial vehicles in commercial aviation. Modern jetliners can already fly from place to place and even land without human help. Eventually the whole cockpit may be turned over to the autopilot, if passengers can be convinced to trust it.

Robotically piloted vehicles will also play roles in research. Solar-powered aircraft could stay aloft for weeks or months.

Solar-powered aircraft may also be able to carry a human pilot. Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss balloonist who was part of the first team to fly a balloon around the world nonstop, thinks so; he’s designing a solar-powered plane he hopes to begin testing in 2006, and eventually fly around the world nonstop.

Aircraft bigger and/or faster than anything that exists today are on their way, too. A new Airbus jetliner scheduled to go into service in 2006 will be able to carry up to 636 passengers and fly more than 8,000 miles without refueling. On the “faster” side of the ledger, NASA’s X-43 project is intended to create a reusable space plane that can fly more than 16,000 kilometres per hour on an air-breathing “scramjet” engine, then ignite a rocket engine to boost into space. In 20 or 30 years, such hypersonic craft allowing a courier company to offer not just “next-day” service but “next-hour” service to Australia.

Once you do get into space, there’s no use for airplanes any more, of course…or is there?

In fact airplanes are being seriously considered for exploration of the solar system. On Mars, for example, while the atmosphere is thin, it’s flyable. A solar-powered aircraft could be deployed as a survey craft. It wouldn’t necessarily look like an Earth airplane–one proposal (also being explored for use on Earth) is for an “entomopter,” an aircraft that would fly like an insect, by rapidly flapping its wings.

Aircraft could also be used on Venus and in the upper reaches of Jupiter, Saturn and the other gas giants. And Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, might be the very best place in the solar system to fly, thanks to low gravity, a dense atmosphere and low temperatures.

You could say that after 100 years, airplanes are still just getting off the ground.

These weekly columns on science appear in the Regina (Saskatchewan) Leader Post and Red Deer (Alberta) Advocate and on CBC Radio One’s Afternoon Edition in Saskatchewan. They are available for one-time publication or regular syndication to any interested newspapers, magazines or on-line publications. E-mail me for details.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2003/12/a-century-of-flight/

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