Aircraft That Changed the World
We fearlessly (or foolishly) pick 10.
- By The Editors
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
(Page 2 of 5)
“The Wrights then faced the task of selling their invention. By the spring of 1908 they had been granted a patent and had signed contracts to sell airplanes to both the U.S. Army and a French syndicate.
“The brothers had not left the ground since the October 5, 1905 flight, however. In addition to brushing up on their flying skills, they had to make their first flights with a passenger, something required by both contracts, and operate a new set of controls necessitated by upright seating, another stipulation of the contracts.
“They pulled the 1905 machine out of storage and modified it with two upright seats and the new control system. They shipped it back to the Kill Devil Hills of North Carolina because they wanted to undertake the test flights in an area with steady winds, soft sand, and isolation from prying eyes. On May 14, 1908, first Wilbur and then Orville took their mechanic, Charles Furnas, up for a ride. These were the first airplane passenger flights in history.”
Crouch’s Museum colleague, early-flight curator and Wright scholar Peter Jakab, concurs with this choice of aircraft: “Even the Wrights did not see the 1903 airplane as the conclusion of their experimental work,” he says. “They had identified the final goal as a ‘machine of practical utility.’ They understood that the 1903 airplane, although embodying all the key technology, was not quite that. When they could stay aloft for an extended period, under the sure command of the pilot, and consistently land safely, they knew they had that ‘machine of practical utility.’ The 1905 machine was that airplane.
“When the Wrights were regularly flying over Huffman Prairie in the fall of 1905,” says Jakab, “that’s when the world truly changed.”
2. Junkers F13
“The F13 was essentially the first aircraft to anticipate the onset of ‘modern’ air transport: cantilever [no wing struts], all metal, low wing, monoplane, streamlined (by the standards of the day),” says aviation historian Dick Hallion, this year’s A. Verville Fellow at the National Air and Space Museum. The metal construction, adds NASM air transport curator Ron Davies, “made it sturdier and less vulnerable to damage than the wood-and-fabric biplanes of its competitors. The metal was especially critical in resisting heat and humidity in tropical countries.”
The F13 first flew in 1919 (as the J13), and by the end of the year was in commercial service in Germany. “It established [founder Hugo] Junkers in a position of global air transport dominance that his firm would not relinquish until the mid-1930s, to Donald Douglas,” says Hallion. The F13 was used in the first airline service in the Americas (Colombia’s SCADTA).
Says Davies, “Unlike postwar transport airplanes that were modified from military types, the F13 was designed to carry passengers in an enclosed cabin. The four cushioned seats had seat belts, and the cabin was lighted and had picture windows.” Now that’s air travel.
After World War I, Germany was prohibited from operating the aircraft, but it sold them or licensed manufacture to 30 countries, including Hungary, Iceland, the Soviet Union, and Japan. In those years, the F13 established air routes in both Europe and the Americas. The last retired in 1948.
3. Boeing 314
In the hands of Pan American Airways, Boeing’s majestic flying boat, the 314, established mail and passenger routes across the north Atlantic, south Atlantic, and Pacific. In Pan Am, An Airline and Its Aircraft, NASM’s Ron Davies writes: “The B 314 flying boat put up all kinds of records, but none could compare with the establishment of the North Atlantic service in 1939 in the epoch-making series of inaugural flights which were, perhaps, Pan American’s greatest contribution to air transport in all its distinguished history.”
On the 314’s Pacific route (San Francisco-Honolulu-Midway Island-Wake Island-Guam-Manila), service was opulent—even the flight deck was described as luxurious—with a lounge, dining area, sleeping berths, and dressing rooms, as well as chefs and china from four-star hotels. Advertisements for the Clippers (named for their nautical forebears) promised an experience that was not just safe but sumptuous, exciting the public about flight.