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Airplanes that Transformed Aviation

Sixteen historic designs that changed the game.

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Further reading:
Harold Mansfield, Vision (Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1956);
Eugene Rodgers, Flying High (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996).

15. General Dynamics YF-16

Created out of controversy—the debate over whether U.S. fighter aircraft were becoming too big, complex, and expensive—the YF-16 program spawned one of the largest aircraft production efforts the United States ever undertook, serving in the air forces of numerous nations and generating derivatives of its own. But the greatest significance of the YF-16 was in its use of a computer-controlled, electronic “fly by wire” flight control system, a necessity, given that the aircraft was, like the Wright brothers’ original airplanes, inherently unstable and thus required constant control surface deflection to keep in trim. This “relaxed static stability,” coupled with a powerful afterburning turbofan engine and a lightweight design, gave the YF-16 extraordinary maneuverability and the ability to accelerate in a vertical climb. Though it was not the first fly-by-wire airplane (a succession of various test beds contributed incrementally to producing this technology, particulary a modified Air Force F-4 Phantom II and a NASA F-8 Crusader), it was the first fighter designed to incorporate combat-rated electronic flight control architecture. But it had other noteworthy features: a seat slanted to increase pilot G-tolerance; an X-15-like side-stick flight controller; forebody strakes to produce extra lift, increase stability, and decrease stall speed; and automatic leading edge maneuvering flaps. First flown in 1974, the YF-16 led to the slightly larger F-16A Fighting Falcon, which first flew in 1976 and became NATO’s replacement for the F-104 fighter, and immensely successful in its own right. The YF-16 introduced and validated practical electronic fly-by-wire flight control, which became a standard feature of advanced military and civilian aircraft, some of which, such as the unstable F-117 and B-2, could not fly without it.

Further reading:
David C. Aronstein and Albert C. Piccirillo, “The F-16 Lightweight Fighter: A Case Study in Technology Transition,” in J. Neufeld et. al, editors, Technology and the Air Force (U.S. Air Force, 1997).

16. Boeing 777

Since the Model 367-80, the dominant paradigm in air transport design has been the “tube and swept-wing” airliner. In this respect, Boeing’s 777, which first flew in June 1994, looks little different from any other jetliner. But the 777 represented not only a considerable risk for Boeing but a gamble across the fields of industrial design, structures and materials, propulsion, and flight control technology. Designed to fit between the large 747 and the smaller 767, the 777 occupied a special niche in Boeing’s corporate inventory. It was created to compete with the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 (a DC-10 derivative) and the Airbus A330/340. Its twin engines each had to produce 90,000 pounds of thrust, a hundred times greater than the initial thrust of Frank Whittle’s first jet engines a half-century before. Boeing incorporated a fly-by-wire flight control system, made extensive use of composite structural materials, and—the boldest step of all—undertook all design of the aircraft on computers connected to 2,200 terminals, thanks to a program called CATIA (Computer-Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application), which, ironically, came from Dassault in France, home of the rival Airbus. In the 1970s, engineers threw their slide rules away, replacing them with calculators. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, they threw away their drafting tables as well. That may well prove the 777’s greatest bequest to aviation history.

Further reading:
Eugene E. Bauer, Boeing: The First Century (TABA Publishing, Co., 2000)

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