Aviation in the Last 100 Years

We’re three months into 2020, and it’s interesting to take a step back and look how far we’ve come as an aviation industry. From the first commercial flight in 1914, to the newest Boeing 777X taking its first flight in January of this year, life in the air has come a long way. 

Boeing 777x
Attribution: Dan Nevill from Seattle, WA, United States / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Commercial Aviation: 

The 1920s was a turning point in terms of commercial flights. This was the year aircraft design took a turn to exclusively accommodate passengers. It wasn’t the best of times though: aircraft traveled slower than most trains, were cold because they were uninsulated and had to stop to refuel often. Although flights in the era only held 15 to 20 passengers and were quite uncomfortable, traveling by air continued to gain popularity. 

Much of the 30s centered around making aircraft more comfortable for passengers. Early in the decade, female flight attendants became part of the growing list of aviation jobs to provide service similar to current-day duties. By the end of the decade, planes could fly upwards of 20,000 feet, above weather making, for a more comfortable ride. Additionally, seating improved to couches and reclining chairs, cabins became soundproof and heated, and the first pressurized aircraft was made public in 1938. 

Significant change occurred in the 40s and 50s. During the second World War, planes were needed for military endeavors rather than commercial use. After the war ended, there was a surplus of planes left over, as well as air bases with long runways. These were transformed for commercial use, leading into the 50s, known as the “Golden Age” of travel. Flying during this time was expensive. In today’s world, a flight from Phoenix to Chicago would cost just over $1,000; to get across the pond, $3,000. Nonetheless, this era lived up to what people paid. Unlike today, people dressed to the nines when flying, and were served unlimited booze and dishes like lobster and prime rib. 

Boeing’s first 747 “Jumbo Jet in 1968.
Attribution: SAS Scandinavian Airlines / Public domain

From 1960 to 1990, flying was much more relaxed. The “Jumbo Jet” was introduced, making tickets more affordable. More and more people were flying and getting to the gate was easy. No form of ID was required and security screenings didn’t start until 1973, and even those were less extensive than today. Although the meals were included, the quality declined. Free alcohol was still an accommodation. In the late 90s, inflight entertainment was in its early stages and in many cases, seats had a phone. 

As most know, 2001 was the year of the 9/11 attacks. After that tragic day, TSA was created and airport security became extensive. Cockpit doors were now locked and reinforced. Present day flying is more about convenience than comfort. Many planes are equipped with large touch screens for tv’s and charging ports for their electronic devices. No free meals or alcohol, unless you buy a first class ticket. That’s where the glamor from the past century continues. 

General Aviation: 

The world of private flying, or general aviation, took off soon after commercial flights. Yet, personal use of planes was actually adopted early in the history of aviation. Just before the first World War, an exhibition pilot Clyde Cessna started his first aircraft business with the intent to produce small, inexpensive aircraft for personal use only. 

Cessna and other personal aircraft producers were attempting to make aircraft to fulfill the “winged gospel.” Historian Joseph Corn had a belief he termed the “winged gospel” – a dream that one day aircraft would be the common form of transportation. Producers ran into cost problems. In order to have a small enough aircraft, they would need an expensive engine. To keep the cost down, less expensive engines like the OX-5 could be used, but would require larger aircraft to surround it. 

The government began to get involved in the 20s, requiring pilots to have licences and certifications to fly. This made general aviation harder to take off. However, the late 20s and early 30s showed significant advancement in terms of general aviation. More people were getting their pilot’s license, and crop dusting started in the south, proving valuable. The first affordable, small aircraft debuted in 1929. After this development, American manufactures began to produce small, affordable engines to be used in personal aircraft. 

World War II grounded most general aviation planes. However, some general aviation pilots found a way to get involved in the war and keep flying. Business aircraft continued to manifest during this time, but post war, personal aviation suffered. 

The Cessna 172 was first flown in 1955. Attribution: Steve42467 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The personal aviation boom never happened, putting many small aircraft manufacturers out of business. Cessna, Beech and Piper managed to survive, but rebuilding the personal aircraft market wasn’t easy. Through the 1970s, some success was seen as builders transitioned from fabric to metal covered aircraft. Aircraft used for general aviation began to include restored warbirds, helicopters, single-engine planes, business jets and homemade aircraft. The 80s and 90s saw more hardships for general aviation. Lawsuits against manufactures soared, and liability insurance caused a rise in price of owning your own aircraft.

Today, a more cost-effective means of personal aviation to which many are using is fractionally-owned aircraft. With this method, multiple people buy into an aircraft, sharing use of it. This helps the aircraft get used more, and keeps it cost effective for the individuals. 

Aviation today: 

Some are lucky enough to own an aircraft or know someone who does, and general aviation is again, slowly on the rise. More and more sites are popping up that sell personal aircraft, and the list of aviation jobs continues to grow. If you’re looking to own your own aircraft, sites like AeroSearcher make it easy to browse thousands of listings through an extensive index, not to mention jobs, parts and products, as well. Although aviation has changed significantly in the last century, it continues to evolve and inspire thousands of people to become part of the industry. 


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