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10 Milestone Flights

You wouldn't have wanted to be along on most of them.

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1. First powered flight in public

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Fearing the attention of possible competitors, the Wrights tried to keep their achievement of powered flight secret for five years while they developed their Flyers further. Meanwhile, in France, Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont was feeling no such inhibitions. Santos-Dumont designed 14-bis, a pine-frame biplane with a 24-horsepower Antoinette motorboat engine, and he made several flights in it before crowds outside Paris. Technically, his first flight was on September 13, 1906, but it went only about 23 feet and reached an altitude—if that is the word—of two feet. The flight he made on October 23, which covered 197 feet at an altitude of about 10 feet, was his first substantial flight. It was also the first powered flight made anywhere outside of the United States, as well as the first powered flight by a non-Wright airplane.

A few portions of the Paris newspaper Le Figaro’s account: “[S]uddenly, Santos-Dumont points the end of the machine skyward, and the wheels visibly, unambiguously, leave the soil: the aeroplane flies. The whole crowd is stirred. Santos-Dumont seems to fly like some immense bird in a fairy tale…. Attempting to prolong the flight, he makes an adjustment to the nose of the craft, but—alas—in too brusque a movement! The aeroplane sinks.”

2. First carrier landing

A pilot for the Curtiss Aviation Company, Eugene Ely made the first landing of an airplane on the deck of a ship. The “carrier” used in the demonstration was the USS Pennsylvania, a battleship stationed in San Francisco Bay. The demonstration team had equipped the ship’s fantail with a wooden landing platform. Ely’s Curtiss model D pusher, the Albany Flyer, had no brakes; to halt it after landing, the team had equipped it with hooks that were to catch on one or more of 22 ropes that had been stretched across the landing platform and secured with sandbags.

On January 18, 1911, Ely took off from San Francisco’s Tanforan Field. He flew out over the bay, turned, and descended toward the Pennsylvania. On his first attempts, Ely was unable to land, but on the third, flying at about 40 mph, he accomplished what all naval aviators have had to master since: He flew his airplane low enough to get his hooks to catch. His caught on the last ropes. “This is the most important landing since the dove returned to the ark,” the captain of the Pennsylvania declared.

3. First armed air-to-air kill

World War I provided the first opportunity for one airplane to down another. On October 5, 1914, French pilot Joseph Frantz and mechanic/observer Louis Quénault were returning from a mission in a Voisin III biplane bomber. Their aircraft had just been outfitted with a Hotchkiss machine gun, and Quénault, sitting in front, had been instructed to try it out. At 6,500 feet over the French village of Jamoigne, he got his chance. A German Aviatik B.1, flown by Sergeant Wilhelm Schlichting, had been flying reconnaissance over French positions when Quénault spotted it below. He opened fire, and soon the Aviatik plummeted to earth. French troops watching from the ground burst into applause.

4. First aerial refueling

The trouble with airplanes is they have to come down, and not always when it’s convenient for the air crew. In 1923, under the command of Major Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, then commander of Rockwell Field in San Diego, the Army initiated a test program to determine whether it was possible to keep an airplane in the air by refueling as it flew.

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