Airplanes that Transformed Aviation

Sixteen historic designs that changed the game.

Air & Space Magazine

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2. Blériot XI

Louis Blériot’s unremarkable appearance masked a fine technical mind and a boldly adventurous, even courageous, personality. His Model XI is remembered for having made the first flight across the English Channel, on July 25, 1909—a feat of bravery, skill, and technology. And it had profound strategic implications: Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper proclaimed “England is no longer an island,” and indeed it wasn’t: In less than a decade, German Zeppelins and bombers would appear in its skies, marking the first Battle of Britain. But beyond all this, the Model XI established the tractor “engine in front” monoplane tradition, together with the classic tail-dragger landing gear. Larger, more powerful derivatives of the Blériot were the world’s first successful air exports, and among the first military reconnaissance and bombing airplanes to fly in actual combat. The Blériot signaled that European aviation, moribund after the death of German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal in 1896, was back—and that the early era of unchallenged supremacy by the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss was at an end.

Further reading:

Charles Gibbs-Smith, Dictionary and Nomenclature of the First Aeroplanes (HMSO, 1966);
Kenneth Munson, Pioneer Aircraft (Macmillan, 1968);
Alfred Gollin, No Longer an Island: The Impact of Air Power on the British People and Their Government (Stanford University Press, 1989)

3. Deperdussin Monocoque

Conceived by Louis Béchéreau and Frederick Koolhoven and sponsored by Belgian silk merchant and manufacturer Armand Deperdussin, the Deperdussin Monocoque introduced the stressed-skin shell structure to aircraft design, which became a global design standard, first in wood and then in metal. This shapely machine also launched the streamlining revolution that continues to the present day. First flown in 1911, the Deperdussin Monocoque racer blended the Blériot-style monoplane approach with a much more refined form, giving it an appearance more typical of racers at the end of the 1920s than of aircraft flying less than a decade after the airplane's debut at Kitty Hawk. Thereafter it underwent steady design evolution. In September 1912, a more powerful and even smoother formed Deperdussin won the Gordon-Bennett Trophy Race in Chicago, becoming the first airplane to exceed 100 mph. It also introduced the powerful rotary engine to aircraft design. Deperdussin’s firm collapsed amid charges of fraud and embezzlement, and he went to jail. Blériot reorganized it, and Béchéreau remained its chief engineer, working with André Herbemont to design the wartime SPAD fighter—an aircraft that, festooned with struts and wires, hardly resembled the streamlined purity of its predecessor. But others did bear the resemblance—and on the other side, most notably the German Albatros, whose distinctive shark-like shape reflected Béchéreau’s pre-war design.

Further Reading:
Henri Mirguet, “Le Monocoque Deperdussin,” L’Aérophile, vol. 20, no. 18 (15 Sept. 1912);
“The 100-hp Deperdussin Racing Monoplane,” Flight, 10 Feb. 1912.

4. Sikorsky Il’ya Muromets

Igor Sikorsky had multiple careers in aviation. His flying boats made Pan American a success and ushered in the era of intercontinental aviation, and he became the greatest of helicopter manufacturers. Frustrated in his first attempts to build rotary-wing craft—his consuming passion—Sikorsky had turned to conventional aircraft design, emulating French and German design practice. In 1913 he had developed the Russkiy vitaz, the “Russian Knight,” more popularly known as Le Grand, the world’s first large multi-engine airplane. But it was its more practical and refined successor, the Il’ya Muromets (named for a legendary Russian warrior), that really established his reputation. With dual controls for a pilot and copilot, a plush cabin (with a lavatory, private suite, bed, and even balcony), and cabin heating and lighting, this large four-engine biplane anticipated all subsequent biplane bomber and transport aircraft. In June 1914, it flew from St. Petersburg to Kiev and back, and derivatives of it proved powerful and rugged wartime bombers. Indeed, the Il’ya Muromets was the first example of the “dual use” aircraft, with interdependent civil and military roles.

Further reading:
Igor I. Sikorsky, The Story of the Winged-S (Dodd, Mead, 1967 edition);
K. N. Finne, with Carl J. Bobrow and Von Hardesty, Igor Sikorsky: The Russian Years (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987).

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