The pioneer era of aviation

The pioneer era of aviation refers to the period of aviation history between the first successful powered flight, generally accepted to have been made by the Wright Brothers on 17 December 1903, and the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. During this period aviation passed from being seen as the preserve of eccentric enthusiasts to being an established technology, with the establishment of specialist aeronautical engineering research establishments and university courses, and the creation of major industrial aircraft manufacturing businesses, and aviation became a subject of enormous popular interest.

The years between World War I and World War II saw great advancements in aircraft technology. Airplanes evolved from low-powered biplanes made from wood and fabric to sleek, high-powered monoplanes made of aluminum, based primarily on the founding work of Hugo Junkers during the World War I period and its adoption by American designer William Bushnell Stout and Soviet designer Andrei Nikolaevich Tupolev.

World War II saw a great increase in the pace of development and production, not only of aircraft but also the associated flight-based weapon delivery systems. After World War II, commercial aviation grew rapidly, using mostly ex-military aircraft to transport people and cargo. This growth was accelerated by the glut of heavy and super-heavy bomber airframes like the B-29 and Lancaster that could be converted into commercial aircraft. The DC-3 also made for easier and longer commercial flights. The first commercial jet airliner to fly was the British de Havilland Comet. By 1952, the British state airline BOAC had introduced the Comet into scheduled service. While a technical achievement, the plane suffered a series of highly public failures, as the shape of the windows led to cracks due to metal fatigue. The fatigue was caused by cycles of pressurization and depressurization of the cabin, and eventually led to catastrophic failure of the plane’s fuselage.

By the time the problems were overcome, other jet airliner designs had already taken to the skies. The last quarter of the 20th century saw a change of emphasis. No longer was revolutionary progress made in flight speeds, distances and materials technology. This part of the century instead saw the spreading of the digital revolution both in flight avionics and in aircraft design and manufacturing techniques.