A Brief History of Flight – and a Look at the Future

The brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright are mostly credited with inventing manned flight.  It is true that Orville piloted “the Flyer” in man’s first powered flight on December 17th 1903.  That flight lasted 12 seconds and travelled 120 feet.

An inauspicious beginning you might think, but humankind was now able to fly!  During the next century, many new airplanes and engines were developed to help transport people, luggage, cargo, military personnel and weapons.  The 20th century’s advances were based on this first flight at Kitty Hawk by the American brothers from Ohio.

On Friday next a new type of aircraft will be unveiled in Switzerland that sounds just as outrageously implausible as that first 12 horse-power Flyer that lifted off in North Carolina all those years ago.  Read on…

Man’s quest to fly is ancient, from the mythical engineer Daedalus, who made wings of feathers and wax and set off with his son Icarus to fly from Crete to Naples.  Icarus, you will recall from your schooldays, flew too close to the sun and the wax melted, with predictable consequences.

But the Chinese were the first to seriously study flying possibilities with the invention of kites about 400 BC.  These were the forerunners of balloons and gliders.

For many centuries, humans have tried to fly just like the birds.  Wings made of feathers or light weight wood have been attached to arms to test their ability to fly.  The results were often disastrous as the muscles of the human arms are not like birds and can not move with the strength of a bird.

Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480’s.  He had over 100 drawings that illustrated his theories on flight.

The Ornithopter flying machine was never actually created.  It was a design that Leonardo da Vinci created to show how man could fly.  The modern day helicopter is based on this concept.

The brothers, Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, were inventors of the first hot air balloon.  They used the smoke from a fire to blow hot air into a silk bag.  The silk bag was attached to a basket.  The hot air then rose and allowed the balloon to be lighter-than-air.

In 1783, the first passengers in the colourful balloon were a sheep, a rooster and a duck.  It climbed to a height of about 6,000 feet and travelled more than 1 mile.

After this first success, the brothers began to send men up in balloons.  The first manned flight was on November 21st 1783.

George Caley is credited with inventing the first real gliders in the 19th century, but he realised that there would be a need for power if the flight was to be in the air for a long time.  Various developments took place and finally in 1891 an astronomer, Samuel Langley, built a model plane, which he called an aerodrome, that included a steam-powered engine.  It flew, unmanned, for ¾ of a mile before running out of fuel.

But he had proved it could be done and a mere 12 years later manned flight became a reality as Orville Wright took to the air, however briefly.

From there flying took off, literally, and the technology rapidly advanced through the 20th century bringing us all the way to supersonic travel and rocket propelled spacecraft almost routinely bringing man to the moon and back.  So where can the next great advances come from?

Curiosity, opportunity, genius, and need, all drive invention, and it may be “need” which drives the great aviation invention of the future.

As oil becomes more scarce and more expensive it becomes a huge burden on the viable operation of commercial aircraft.  Last year the world’s airlines lost over €10 billion, and despite fuel cost savings of almost €60 billion this year, losses are likely to exceed $9 billion.

When an airliner takes off for a transatlantic flight it needs to carry some 80 tonnes of fuel, which accounts for around 1/5 of its weight.  On really long flights, fuel can account for 40% of a plane’s take-off weight, so that around 20% of the fuel is used to carry the rest of the fuel.  Each tonne of fuel burned also produces 3.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide.  So from a global warming perspective, there is also a compelling reason to find an alternative aviation fuel.  And those great inventors just may have.

On Friday next, June 26th, the prototype of an aircraft that does not use any fuel at all will be unveiled at a Swiss airfield.  The wings of this aircraft are almost as big as those of a conventional aircraft, but they are covered in a film of solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity to drive its engines.  Voila!

Known as the HB-SIA this aircraft is being launched by Solar Impulse, a project run by aviators.  But they have an impressive list of backers including Deutsche Bank, Omega, Solvay, Toyota, Altran, Dassault and many others.  Once this plane has tested successfully at low altitudes (non-pressurised) another version will be built and this will take off and climb to over 30,000 feet and, by storing some of the electricity generated during the day, continue flying through the night.  Its pilots, two brave fellows by the names of Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, plan to cross the Atlantic, and later fly it around the world.

But that’s later, the first critical test flight comes later this year.  If the prototype succeeds in flying through the night then the design of its successor will be finalised.  This aircraft, HB-SIB, is intended to operate in stints of around five days and nights.  If it succeeds in crossing the Atlantic, it will then try to circle the globe, following the Tropic of Cancer and landing on each continent.

This will involve some daring, with the aircraft spending all day climbing as its batteries are recharged and then descending slowly under power throughout the night to conserve energy.  It means keeping a close eye on the weather and navigating around windy areas.  The team has experimented with simulated flights using real-time meteorological data.  Encountering a headwind at night is a worry.  “It could make the night much longer and cause you to run out of energy before sunrise, which would be a disaster,” says Mr Borschberg.  Success means a flight plan which ensures that “every morning you are in sunshine”.

Do we have an airport in the sunny South East?  Of course – Waterford.

Well as they say its early days, but who would bet against the reality of solar powered flight being a reality within the next 50 years.  After all it seems a far more realistic ambition than an aircraft like the Airbus A380 (which can carry up to 800 passengers) would have seemed to Wilbur or Orville Wright back in 1903.

June 24th 2009

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