Depending on how one wants to look at things, aviation history looks back somewhere
around two thousand years. From sticking bird feathers on the fragile human and jumping
off towers. From Greek mythology and the legend of Icarus' fateful journey too close
to the sun. The early kites of China from the 5th Century BC have been said to be
the first man-made aircraft. Then, the Renaissance designs of da Vinci. All early
indications of mankind's interest in flight.
The balloons of the Montgolfier brothers, assisted by the discovery of hydrogen gas
drove 18th Century development, including the first crewed flight. Balloon development
continued with blimps and eventually culminating as the dirigible airships, the Zeppelins.
The early rigid Zeppelin flew, albeit not without issues, in July 1900.
Sir George Cayley set the seeds of the heavier than air aeroplane, defining the 'modern' 'plane in 1846. Cayley considered aerodynamics, the modern 'configuration' of fixed-wing, fuselage and tail and included the first formal identification of
the vector forces leading to what we know today as necessary for controlled flight.
He also influenced the invention of gliders, which Lilienthal and Chanute continued
and became known for. While pretenders were challenging the milestone by a couple
of years, it is generally (although not entirely) accepted the Wright Brothers, after
a lot of trial and error, are synonymous with the first controlled flight on December
Aviation 1.0 was almost entirely about proving powered, and controlled flight was possible.
If aviation 1.0 was all about seeing what was possible, Aviation 2.0 was about exploiting it.
Although military exploitation of the air has an ancient history, the next phase of
aviation development took it to the next level, and it continues to develop, now,
toward space. The commercial aviation industry has been (perhaps unintended) a flow-on
beneficiary. Technologies that developed as a result of global arms races found their
way into the nascent industry and continue to benefit it today. Consider the reliance
placed on satellite navigation.
Aviation 2.0 started slowly: literally. In January 1914, Tony Jannus took a single
passenger on a 34-kilometre flight that took a bit over 20 minutes (about 55kts for
those wondering). In 1914, the numbers associated with the aviation industry today
would have seemed like science fiction fantasy, even though science fiction did not
come into the common lexicon until the 1920s. Today aircraft can carry over 500 passengers,
at speeds ten times that of Jannus's flight and at altitudes around 800 times as high,
give or take. On the 100th anniversary of Jannus' single passenger flight, the aviation
industry carried 8.5 million passengers - that day!
Not without its problems, financially and structurally since its slow, laborious beginnings
50 feet over Tampa Bay in Florida, the industry has weathered quite a few external
shocks along the way. Whether it collectively learned anything from them is debatable
as it deals with COVID-19. As unprecedented as it is, however, the industry has always
managed to climb out of these problems and resume a trajectory of growth that no one
on that chilly January day would foresee.
Without doubt, the aviation industry will overcome this pandemic too and perhaps emerge
as a more resilient version of itself. Eventually, it will regain the growth trends
that existed before the COVD-19 shock and again become the victim of its success,
where growing overcrowding in the sky added to building pressure on airline bottom
lines the world over. Will the industry be ready?
To see what it'll take, jump to Aviation 3.0