HISTORY OF PLANES

Otto Lilienthal with glider

Gliders Lead The Way

Otto Lilienthal's interest in flight dated back to his teen-age years, when he strapped on a pair of home-made wings and ran down a hill flapping his arms, hoping to take off into the air. It didn't work, but after years of study, Lilienthal, an engineer by training, built a glider that did the trick, becoming the first person to take off into the air, fly and land safely. Between 1891 and 1896, Lilienthal built 18 models and flew more than 2,000 times. Lilienthal built an artificial hill (seen in this 1896 photo) near his home in Berlin to use as a launching platform for his glider flights. Named ""Fliegerberg"" (Flight Mountain), it was designed so he could fly no matter the prevailing wind direction. After his death following a glider accident in 1896, this elevation was transformed into a memorial to his life and achievements. The Wright Brothers, in particular, cite Lilienthal's pioneering work as a prime inspiration for their own achievements.

Wright Brothers first flight

First in Flight

Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright parlay an expertise in bicycles, a passion for flight and a cunning insight into aerodynamic controls into the first powered, controlled airplane flight on Dec. 17, 1903. What set the Wright Flyer apart and won the inventors a place in history was the way they figured out (and patented) how to control the plane in three dimensions. It has remained the foundation for the control of fixed-wing aircraft to this day.

Alberto Santos-Dumont flying

First Controlled European Flight

Wealthy Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont makes a controlled, powered flight over a field outside of Paris on Oct. 23, 1906. His flying box-kite, called the ""14-bis"" plane, covered 60 meters at a height of two to three meters. For decades after Santos-Dumont's historic flight, some flight enthusiasts and historians, especially in Europe and Brazil, have claimed that this flight was actually the first true controlled powered flight, since Santos-Dumont's plane took off while resting on its own wheels. The Wright Brothers used a rail and launcher in their historic 1903 flight.

Junkers J1 airplane

First All-Metal Planes

At a time when airplanes were made out of fabric and wood, the German Junkers company manufactured an all-metal prototype that showed the aviation world that lighter metals could be used for aircraft. The Junkers J 1, nicknamed “Tin Donkey” first flew in 1916, but never saw combat. Nevertheless, its influence on aviation history was monumental as new stronger metal alloys quickly became the dominant materials used for almost all airframes. After World War I, the J 1 went on display in a Berlin museum, but later fell victim to World War II bombs - dropped by an all-metal Allied aircraft.

Charles Lindbergh with the Spirit of St. Louis

The Trans-Atlantic Prize

Charles Lindbergh, a one-time U.S. mail pilot, clinches the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The wave of publicity following the 20-21 May 1927 flight helps establish the airplane as a viable means of long-distance transportation. Pilot applications tripled. The number of airline passengers in the United States topped 173,000 by 1929, a 3,000 percent increase.

Amelia Earhart with crowds in Ireland

Amelia Conquers An Ocean

Five years to the day after Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart shows its not just men who have the right stuff to be pilots. In this photo, crowds in Londonderry, Northern Ireland gather to cheer her after her historic flight across the ocean on May 21, 1932. This transatlantic journey is followed by a flight over the Pacific and an attempt to circumnavigate the globe that will ultimately end in a still mysterious tragedy.

Hindenburg zeppelin in flames

Fiery End For Airships

For a while it looked like giant rigid airships known as dirigibles or Zeppelins would set the new standard of luxury for crossing the world's great oceans and landmasses. That era ended when the Hindenburg exploded on May 6, 1937, killing 35 of the 97 people aboard. With this disaster - and the inherent drawbacks of airships - the path was open for commercial passenger planes to rule the skies.

Boeing 247 passenger plane

Airliner Pioneer

Boeing’s 247 could top 200 mph (322 km/h) - faster than any other passenger plane at the time. It was a star attraction at the 1933 Chicago World Fair and a harbinger of things to come. By 1937, when this photo of a United Air Lines 247 was taken, these planes were collectively flying over 60,000 miles (96,000 km) a day for at least 5 different airlines, including Lufthansa in Germany.

Me 262 fighter jet

The First Jets

The first operational turbojet fighter plane, the Me 262, sits on a captured German airfield just after the end of World War II. Before the war, both Hans von Ohain in Germany and Frank Whittle in Great Britain independently designed the first turbojet engines. Even though the British version was operational first (in 1937), it was the Germans who first designed an operational turbojet aircraft. The Me 262 came too late to change Germany's war fortunes, but the impressive debut of this powerful aircraft spurred all the major military powers to put the development of jet planes on the fast track.

Charles “Chuck” Yaeger with Bell X-1

Breaking The Sound Barrier

Army Air Force Capt. Charles “Chuck” Yaeger climbed into the cockpit of the experimental Bell X-1 on Oct. 14, 1947, for the latest in series of test flights that had begun in August. But this time he reached a speed of Mach 1.06 and became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. Yaeger named the plane after his wife, "Glamorous Glennis." The flight was classified top secret for months, but the Air Force officially confirmed the achievement in March 1948.

H-4 Hercules Spruce Goose

Monster "Goose" Barely Flies

Built by the Hughes Aircraft Company as the world's heaviest transport aircraft, the H-4 Hercules - better known as the ""Spruce Goose"" - made its first and only flight on 2 November 1947. The plane was designed to carry 750 fully equipped troops or one M4 Sherman tank across the Atlantic. It was more than five stories tall with a wingspan longer than a football field. Weight at liftoff was 180,000 kilograms (400,000 pounds). With famed designer and pilot Howard Hughes at the helm, the massive plane flew at an altitude of only 21 meters (70 feet) for one minute, covering just over one mile - proof that it could fly but little else. Now in an Oregon museum, it no longer holds the record for the world's heaviest airplane but its wingspan has never been surpassed.

first Boeing 747 flight

Dawn of the Jumbo Jet

The introduction of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet in 1970 changed aviation. The first wide-body airliner was more than twice the size of its predecessor, the 707. There was no larger passenger aircraft for 37 years. In this photo, one of the first 747's comes in to land at London's Heathrow Airport after its maiden trans-Atlantic flight from New York on Jan. 22, 1970. This commercial debut was with the now-defunct Pan American Airlines.

Concorde supersonic airliner

Supersonic Travel

The Concorde offered a luxurious and speedy ride across the Atlantic -- for a pretty hefty price. The $12,000 or so round-trip fare is partly why British Airways and Air France, the exclusive operators of the plane, couldn't make it into a commercial success, but government support kept it flying for 27 years.

Space Ship One

Private Race to Space

Lured by a $10 million prize and the dream of commercial space travel, a handful of space enthusiasts began working on reusable ships that could fly people to suborbital space. A vehicle designed by Burt Rutan married aviation and aerospace in SpaceShipOne, an air-launched composite ship that flew three times in 2004 and won the Ansari X Prize. Here pilot/astronaut Brian Binnie rides on SpaceShipOne after his successful suborbital flight.

Virgin Galactic plane model

Dreams of Commercial Orbit

In July, 2012, Virgin Galactic - hoping to be the world's first commercial space line - announced the start of its ambitious program to offer commercial flights into Earth orbit by 2016. On display at the event was this model of the ""Virgin Galactic"" craft that will be used to take the first paying customers into space. Meanwhile, Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire and adventurer who bankrolled SpaceShipOne, has taken on a bigger project -- building a massive airplane to serve as an aerial platform for launching larger spacecraft into orbit. The Stratolaunch carrier jet would be bigger than Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, one of the largest airplanes ever built. Hopefully, it will be more useful.

Now & Next

Now showing

Follow Us