Man’s fascination with flight has been the inspiration for incredible engineering marvels. It was just over a century ago, in the late 1800’s, that Samuel Pierpont Langley took his first half-mile flight on his steam engine propelled tandem-winged “Aerodrome” (National Academy of Engineering). Early planes were bulky, heavy, and certainly not fuel efficient. Engineers tinkered with those early models, refining their design over time. Today, over a century later, engineers are able to build complex flying machines that are powerful and aerodynamic. Aircraft design has changed radically over time, with major innovations being made by engineers in the design of the body, wings, and propeller systems.
All of today’s modern airplanes employ similar design techniques in terms of the body of the plane and the design of the wings (Kuhns). For example, the foundation of the airplane wing is relatively flat on the bottom while the top is rounded. This shape forces air over the wing in such a way as to create an area of low pressure, creating lift so the airplane can overcome the force of gravity and fly (Kuhns). The perfecting of these design principles took much trial and error, however. Between the years of 1914-1918, during the period of World War I, hundreds of airplane prototypes were designed, built and tested in the field (Loftin). However, many of the design principles employed in those early models were found to not be the most efficient.
One of the motivating factors behind airplane design was the war. During both World War I and II, aircraft was used during battle. In order to become more effective at air combat, pilot’s needed to be able to out maneuver and out run their enemies. Thus, engineers were constantly trying to make planes lighter, more fuel efficient, and faster. Many of the airplanes flown during the first half of the century employed a fixed double wing design (called a biplane) and a four bladed propeller (Loftin). The evolution in airline design led to the single wing design, called a monoplane, with the two bladed propellers that most people are familiar with today (Loftin).
Beginning at the end of World War II, aircraft design switched from a primarily military focus to a civilian one. Airplanes were recognized as the future of travel and companies raced to become leaders in this new industry. In 1963, the prototype of the Boeing Learjet 23 made its inaugural flight (National Academy of Engineering). It was the first commercially produced passenger plane, able to carry seven passengers and two pilots. It gained popularity and by the end of 1965 over 100 Learjet 23’s has been sold. A mere six years later, Boeing conducted the first test flight of the 747, first commercial airlines. However, since the release of the wide-body and turbofan-powered 747, not much has changed in terms of commercial passenger airplanes. Instead, aircraft design innovations again shifted focus to defense.
The design of the airplane is still not perfect. Planes are still not totally fuel efficient; they are still slightly bulky and could probably be faster. Futuristic designs can be seen coming out of the defense industry, where engineers work to create aircraft that is more stealthy and maneuverable. For example, the U.S. B-2 stealth bomber employ’s composite materials rather than metals, a design principle that makes them undetectable on radar (National Academy of Engineering). However, it is not just in combat fighting that aircraft design is evolving. As the world becomes more and more an international business community, there is a need for people and products to be transported across the globe in a short period of time, making jet transports and business jet aircraft are the future of passport (Loftin).
- Kuhns, M. The Evolution of Airplane Wings. Hesston College Physics Department. Retrieved http://www2.hesston.edu/Physics/WingDesign/research.htm
- Loftin, L.K. Quest for Performance: The Evolution of Modern Aircraft. (2013) NASA History Office Program. Retrieved http://history.nasa.gov/SP-468/contents.htm
- National Academy of Engineering (2013) Airplane Timeline. Great Achievements. Retrieved http://www.greatachievements.org/?id=3728