Defining Moments

The inventions, institutions, gadgets, and lucky breaks that have shaped the story of the airplane

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For sophisticated, supersonic combat aircraft developed from the late 1950s on, fabrication procedures presented challenges so new that in many such programs, the Air Force had to become a partner with commercial manufacturers. Aluminum forgings of unprecedented size required Alcoa to adopt innovative methods; Wyman-Gordan, which made machinery to produce specialized components, had to develop new types of presses and machine tools. MIT ran one intensive four-year research program that cost upward of $180 million to develop numerically controlled machine tools that were directed not by hand but by electronic code and allowed for quicker, more precise manipulation of material. Such efforts led to a new generation of machine tools delivered by companies like Cincinnati, Kearney and Trecker, Giddings & Lewis, Onsrud, and others. To turn out components from heat-resistant, high-strength metal alloys while reducing the number of stiffeners (the weight problem again) used in constructing wings for supersonic fighters, a whole new process evolved. This revolutionary fabrication method, called electrical discharge machining (EDM), used electrical currents to carve out sections of metal, leaving integral stiffeners. The F-100 became the first fighter to feature these one-piece, integrally stiffened skins.

Additional unique tooling appeared to fabricate components made of composite materials (derived from plastic, carbon fibers, and other untraditional substances) coupled with metal alloy skins to form a resilient but lightweight “sandwich” panel. The search for lighter components contributed to the creation of an industry for the production of titanium, geared to a previously unheard-of output of up to 600 tons per month. The F-100 used six times as much titanium as early models of the F-86D.

Within the first century of flight, an uninterrupted expansion of technology transformed the structure and performance of the Wrights’ invention. Along the way, an electronic revolution led to new compact radars and avionics mounted in light airplanes, giant airliners, and Mach-plus fighters. When Boeing developed its 777 airliner in the early 1990s, electronics permeated all aspects of its design, which relied entirely on automation and personal computers and introduced the concept of the “paperless airplane.” Lockheed’s new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which incorporates all these aspects of computer electronics, also required a whole new approach to program management in order to accommodate three U.S. armed services—the Air Force, Navy, and Marines—and the Royal Air Force, all of which will be using the fighter. Moreover, follow-on propulsion systems will be added to the same basic airframe to produce a short-takeoff/verticallanding variant. (What would the Wright brothers have thought of a STOVL supersonic jet fighter armed with rockets, laser targeting, helmet sight, head-up display, radar, and night combat capability?) Components will be manufactured worldwide and the airplane itself will be assembled in the United States and Europe.

And now for the next hundred years…

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