A History Of Aviation - The Development And Division Of Different Ideologies Under The Same Sky

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It has been more than 110 years since the first manned airplane took off into the air. Now, jet planes may carry us around the world in 24 hours. However, the development of airplanes was filled with hitches and divisions, and I would like to introduce those differences that lead to the development of airplanes in this essay. There were a lot of man-made flying objects before the Wright Brothers made their historic flight on Wright Flyer I in 1903, but all of them were unreliable and hard to control (such as hot-air balloon), so I would consider this controllable powered heavier-than-air machine as the first successful airplane and explain the divisions in aircraft development from that time. Pusher configuration vs. Tractor configuration Pusher configuration is the design where the engine and propeller are mounted at the back of the main wing and pushes the aircraft forward, while for the tractor configuration, the engine and the propeller are mounted in front of the main wing, usually in front of the entire fuselage, and pulls the aircraft through the air. Many aircrafts made in the 1900s and early 1910s were with pusher configuration due to the characteristic that a pusher aircraft can, in theory, climb faster and have a higher altitude ceiling than a tractor aircraft when applied the same horsepower because the engine re-energizes the air flown through the wing and reduces drag(Garrison 2009). Early propeller engines for aircraft were often heavy and lacked power.

Therefore, many aircraft manufacturers chose the pusher layout to utilize every single horsepower out of the engine (just as Wright Brother’s Flyer I). However, as material selection and manufacturing technology improved, propeller engines started to be more and more lightweight and powerful. This allowed designers to make pusher aircrafts while not sacrificing too much of an aircraft’s performance. Airplanes would soon start to catch attention from the world’s major powers (such as the German Empire and France) as they slowly realize airplanes’ potential in aerial reconnaissance and even tactical bombing (airplanes at that time were not powerful enough to carry a significant amount of bombs required for strategic bombing). With the outbreak of World War I, the sky over Europe soon escalated from pilots saluting at each other to people mounting machine-guns on the plane and trying to shoot each other down. This is where the pros and cons of each configuration became a big issue. Aircrafts with pusher configuration were good at regular flights and dogfights since a relatively unstable aircraft also means more potential in maneuverability. However, because the engine was placed after the main wing, the crew of the airplane often faced the danger of hitting the propeller when bailing out, and the propeller had a higher risk of running into obstacles on the runway (Aviatorsdatabase 2017). On the other hand, while the pilots on a tractor aircraft didn’t need to worry about striking the propeller, they had a more significant problem: guns mounted in front of them sometimes hit and broke their propeller. Mounting weapons on the wing makes the aiming very hard, so it was also out of choice.

This issue would be solved when the Dutch aircraft manufacturer Fokker invented the interrupter gear which synchronized the propeller and the gun so that the gun won’t fire when the propeller is in front of the gun. Having one of its most significant problems solved, more and more aircrafts with tractor configuration were made because they were more stable and hence easier to train a large number of pilots on them and gain air superiority. Easier handling also meant that tractor configuration would become the dominant choice after WWI for civilian-use aircrafts. Western aircraft design vs. Eastern aircraft design During World War II (WWII), the world started to realize the actual potential airplanes have in both military and commercial field as airplane technologies developed rapidly. Inventions and modifications such as new propeller engines with supercharges producing more than 1500 horsepower, early jet engines, pressurized cockpit, airframes and skins made out of metal instead of wood, etc. have pushed aircraft performances into a new age. The better performance of airplanes allowed aircraft designers to customize their product to fit their specific need. The different needs caused by various aspects of how planes should be would produce utterly different aircraft designs throughout the world.

During WWII, Britain and the United States had lend-lease programs to the Soviet Union which were programs of sending western pieces of equipment (such as guns, tanks, and planes) to help replenish the initial Soviet losses caused by German Blitzkrieg. One of the programs was sending fighters such as British Spitfires and American P-39s. However, the Soviet Union didn’t like some of the equipment. In this case, many Soviet pilots liked the outdated P-39s but didn’t praise the newer Spitfires much. This is due to multiple reasons, says Bismarck (2017) in his video: Soviet pilots often complained about Spitfire’s gun arrangements, how its performance didn’t suit for Soviet air doctrine and was hard to integrate into the Soviet armed forces. Spitfire itself was a great aircraft (and some Soviet pilots did praise it for being easy to fly), especially under British expectations. It was designed to counter the German Airforce (Luftwaffe) by having heavy armaments to shoot down strategic bombers, which were big, hard to damage, and often flew high. It also had a high speed and excellent maneuverability at high altitudes to fight against bombers’ escort fighters. This idea, however, was completely different from the Soviet need and ideology. Both Germany and the Soviet Union focused on Close-Air-Support (CAS) aircrafts (Ju-87 Stuka, Il-2, etc.) which flew low and performed direct attacks on enemy troops. This made Spitfire unable to use its advantage on high-altitude maneuverability and since CAS aircrafts were more nimble than heavy bombers, powerful but imprecise cannons were not appreciated by the Soviet pilots who wanted centralized firepower.

The different aspects of the east and west would continue into the jet age and create entirely different aircrafts. Under capitalism, airlines wanted airplanes that was cheap to operate while providing a comfortable space in the aircraft so that passengers would ride with the airline again. This need caused aircraft manufacturers to focus on developing fuel-efficient engines with low noises; robust and lightweight materials that could be used in the airframe; etc. While on the eastern side, state-owned airlines demanded aircrafts that could operate in extreme weathers and climate such as heavy snow or desert region so that air services could cover most of the nation. Many rural areas in the east did not have long asphalt/concrete runways, so the ability to takeoff and land on a relatively short runway that is not in optimal condition was also needed. Therefore, Soviet manufacturers came up with many distinctive designs such as the Il-62M which could fly 10000km and with the help in-air reverse-thrust, which no western passenger jet could do, it could carry up to 200 passengers and land on a 1000 meters long dirt runway.(Ilyushin 2003)

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This characteristic is still seen in newer Russian passenger jets by having a takeoff and landing distance 20~40% shorter than their same class western opponent (Boeing 2017). Boeing vs. Airbus Over the past four decades, Airbus has emerged as the world’s leading manufacturer of large commercial aircraft. The success of Europe’s Airbus is dramatic, given that four decades ago, American domination of the large commercial aircraft market outside the Soviet bloc was uncontested. Airbus is now one of the world’s remaining two dominant commercial aircraft manufacturers. Airbus was created by a coalition of European states (mainly Britain, France, Germany, and Spain while some other nations provided some specific parts) and firms committed to regaining a European presence in the international large commercial aviation market. By most measures, the rise of Airbus is an astonishing example of a successful policy that required a sustained multi-state collaboration over many decades (Francis, J, and Pevzner, A. 2007:629). The birth of Boeing, on the other hand, was the typical example of how big aircraft manufacturers were made: Spillovers from military research and development. Before WWII, Boeing was one of the dozens of American aircraft manufacturers. During WWII, Boeing was selected to be the primary producer of American bombers. This gave Boeing the world latest technologies in electronics and materials used on large aircrafts. After the world entered the jet-age, the cost of developing and launching a new aircraft has increased exponentially. So did the costs of training pilots or mechanics and providing maintenance for those sophisticated machines (Golich, V. 1992: 908).

Hundreds of aircrafts must be sold to make a model of plane profitable. However, the commercial aviation market did not have such high demand in the late 1940s and 1950s, leading many aircraft manufacturers into bankruptcy. The governments around the world responded differently to this situation. The United States preferred a laissez-faire approach to the aviation industry and applied little intervention on it by centralizing military orders into a few company. Most countries in Europe, on the other hand, decided to intervene and actively merged or took over aircraft manufacturers to protect domestic industry. Interestingly, two exactly opposite policies both had the same effect: the refining of aircraft manufacturers. In 1945, active aircraft manufacturers numbered 18 in the United States and 15 in the United Kingdom and 5 in France. By 1970, that figure became 4, 2, and 1 (Golich 1992). The result of these M&A had significantly reduced the chances of malignant competition between aircraft manufacturers who now have much fewer opponents to compete with and having more resources (such as funding, research facility, talented personnel, etc.).

This opened a new page in aviation history marked by many iconic aircrafts such as the Boeing B-747 Jumbo Jet, Supersonic passenger airline Concorde, and the world’s first plane equipped with a computer system that could automatically perform landings without human intervention, the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar. With Lockheed Martin withdrawing from the commercial aircraft production in the late 1970s, the European aircraft manufacturers suddenly found them facing against a gigantic company which had pretty much merged with every jet aircraft manufacturer: Boeing. (Except for McDonnell Douglas who was making its last-ditch effort on the MD-11 project to prevent the fate of becoming a sub-company under Boeing). Boeing had a vast home market of the entire American continent which its European counterparts would never achieve, at least when they work individually. The successful collaboration between the British Aerospace (BAe) and the French Sud-Aviation which had beaten their American competitor in supersonic aircraft using the Concorde made European governments believe that they still had the chance to lead the commercial aircraft market once again (Francis, J, and Pevzner, A. 2007:638).

Their first try wasn’t very successful, but with the support of multiple European governments and the cream of each nation’s aircraft industry, their A320 Family was a great success. New Fly-by-Wire system allowed pilots to control their plane with just one hand on the joystick and rally its digital signal to the hydraulic system to control the plane instead of Boeing’s yoke which is directly connected to the hydraulic system, making it heavier to move, and thus usually requires both of the pilot’s hands when controlling. The debate on which system is better is still ongoing. The joystick gives the pilots more space and makes their flights more comfortable, but there was a case where the pilot and the co-pilot made different inputs on the joystick, and the plane failed to respond correctly and caused the plane to crash. The yokes are directly connected to each other, so the same problem never happened on a Boeing aircraft (but it reduced the overall comfort of the flight for the pilots for not having much free space in front of them). Boeing gives the pilots the role of making crucial decisions while the flight computers provide the necessary information to assist the pilots, while Airbus has the motto of “computer above all” where the computers would take direct control of the plane during emergency situations and tell the pilots what is the problem and how to solve it. This significantly lowers the chance of human error, but since the computers are also programmed by people, they might also have bugs controlling the plane.

There are countless examples of human error causing planes to fall out of the sky, but there is also a famous quote from a Qantas Airline A380 pilot who successfully landed his crippled plane and said “the computer said that more than 250 systems are failing and we are dead. But we still brought it here.” Conclusion From where to place the engines to how guns should be mounted on planes; from how planes should serve the people to how modern aircrafts should be; different ideologies had created new ideas and brought the entire aviation industry forward for more than one century. With the recovering of Russian aviation industry, the rise of Chinese aircrafts, and a new age of engines, materials, theories, the future of Aviation is filled with possibilities.

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