A Century in the Sky: A Century after Wilbur and Orville Wright Took to the Air for the First Time, Aviation Expert Joanna Walters Looks at the History of Flight and Discusses How the Wrights' Feat Changed the Way We See the Planet

By Walters, Joanna | Geographical, January 2004 | Go to article overview

A Century in the Sky: A Century after Wilbur and Orville Wright Took to the Air for the First Time, Aviation Expert Joanna Walters Looks at the History of Flight and Discusses How the Wrights' Feat Changed the Way We See the Planet


Walters, Joanna, Geographical


Jerry Carr is 71, fit as a fiddle and as enthusiastic today about the space programme as he was when he signed up to become one of NASA's first astronauts in 1965. He travelled into space on Apollo missions eight and 12 and spent 84 days on Skylab in the winter of 1973. "When I first began training, the only astronaut we knew about was Flash Gordon," he says.

Carr is lunching with tourists at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, telling wide-eyed boys and girls what it's like to sleep in space. He'd been a top fighter-pilot, landing on aircraft carriers across distant seas and entirely familiar with supersonic flight, but venturing extra-terrestrially was an adventure "in seeing how far I could go".

A few metres from where Carr is sitting are housed the largest machine ever built and one of the smallest flying vehicles. The giant is a Saturn V rocket that never saw service, its staggeringly vast engines towering above slack-jawed holidaymakers. These rockets were built to propel Apollo from the Cape Canaveral gantries, clearly visible across the river, at a velocity of 8,000km/h. The minnow is a tiny capsule that sat on top of the rockets and carried the early astronauts back down through the atmosphere for an old-fashioned splashdown.

The capsule on display at Kennedy is named Kitty Hawk after the location in North Carolina where Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first controlled, powered, manned flight in a heavier-than-air machine 100 years ago on 17 December 1903. "It has always amazed me that the leap from powered flight to space exploration happened in the lifetime of a single generation," says Cart. "My mother was born in 1907 when the early aircraft flew at 56km/h and she was still alive when rockets began orbiting the Earth at Mach 20--around 24,000km/h."

Last year marked a dramatic turning point in the history of flight. Next to the Saturn V rocket hangar, the remains of the shattered Columbia space shuttle were laid out after its crash in February. Concorde retired, ending supersonic passenger transport, and experts reissued warnings that the growth of commercial aviation will significantly contribute to global warming.

However, the centenary of powered flight is also a celebration. China has just become the third nation to launch a manned rocket into space. Airbus Industrie is making a plane that carries almost 1,000 passengers, and rocket designs for a Mars mission are on engineers' drawing boards.

Flying into battle

The Wright brothers had barely left the ground before aviation enthusiasts were pointing out to US president Theodore Roosevelt the benefits a flying machine would bring to national defence. And it was in the First World War that aircraft found their first real practical use.

Starting a trend that would be repeated throughout the 20th century, the war led to a rapid evolution in aviation technology. Engines became more powerful, airframes more sturdy and improved efficiency in manufacturing increased the numbers of aircraft produced from hundreds to thousands.

At first, they were primarily used for reconnaissance (indeed, an early directive from the German General Staff stated that "the duty of the aviator is to see, not to fight"). The French had first used balloons for this task during the Napoleanic wars and later in the Franco-Prussian War. French, British and German army commanders in the early days of the First World War who chose to overrule sceptics and make decisions based on powered-flight aerial reconnaissance were able to make some crucial strategic retreats, attacks and early warnings. However, it has also been observed that the increasing ability by both sides to monitor each other in this way was partly responsible for the strategic paralysis in the trenches.

But aircraft didn't remain distant observers for long. On 1 April 1915, a French pilot by the name of Roland Garros shot down a German reconnaissance plane, in the process becoming the first solo fighter pilot. …

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