History Snippets: Manned Flight

Early Manned Flight

Early Biplane

Early US Mail Plane (1918). The Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane may have been the first widespread commercial and peacetime use of aircraft, being used by the U.S. Government to deliver the mail. Image is from Antique Airfield – a worthwhile site.

Going from the very old to the very recent:

SR-71 Blackbird

SR-71 Blackbird. Here is a fast introduction to high-altitude air travel. Many modern readers may not recognize the “Blackbird”, the super-secret successor to the more famous U2 spy plane. Aircraft length was 107 feet – about the same as a Greek or Persian trireme, only faster, and self-propelled.

The SR-71 hit a top speed of about 2,200 miles per hour (some claim 3,000 mph). It carried a crew of two pilots in the small cockpit. The rest of the aircraft is almost entirely engine and fuel tanks. In a tight turn, it could just manage to circle in an area the width of the state of California. Each engine could produce 32,500 pounds of thrust.

This was not necessarily the first aircraft which actually changed its shape in flight depending on velocity – but the scope of SR-71 in-flight airframe changes even included the air intakes. At “normal” speeds the engine was a conventional turbojet, but above Mach 3 turbine blades would burn up, so adjustable cone-shaped projections within the intakes were designed to convert the engines to ramjets. see Wikipedia for more details.

My favorite anecdote about the aircraft: in flight the pilots used to heat up their lunches (toasted cheese sandwiches) by placing them under the windshield in the cockpit. This suggests the difficulty of designing such a craft, when the air friction at Mach 3 could heat ordinary metals red-hot. This would cause immediate catastrophic failure, so the entire airframe and skin were constructed of titanium.

On the ground, I once walked completely around a decommissioned SR-71 at an outdoor air museum. It looked like a completely different aircraft from every angle, giving no sense of size or shape. At the end, even though I knew the aircraft and its celebrated history, the circuit was disorienting. I was unable to describe what I just saw.

The SR-71 aircraft was retired in 1998, and is believed to still be the fastest aircraft ever manufactured in the world. Click the image to see a larger picture. (continued next page)

For peacetime use, there are hundreds of models of aircraft capable of carrying one to several hundred passengers.

AirBus A319

Boeing 757. This is how most of the rest of us might travel by air. The 757 has a wingspan of 124 feet and length of 155 feet. It has a cruise speed of about 530 miles per hour and a range of about 3,900 nautical miles, with a seating capacity of about 200. It costs the average American about 2-3 days’ salary to purchase a round-trip ticket coast to coast, a little over 5 hours each way if the flight is booked non-stop. Amenities include free artificially sweetened drinks. The bag of mixed nuts weighing 0.72 ounces has been discontinued.

The pictured 757 was operated by America West with one of several custom Arizona-themed paint jobs. AW merged with US Air in 2005, and the AW name disappeared, but the planes still grace the runways of  Sky Harbor international airport in Phoenix.  Photo by Alex Forbes. Click the image to see a larger picture.

Not all aircraft are powered. Had the principles been understood, a glider of more modest design specifications could have probably been built out of available materials 2,500 years ago. We can imagine that launching would have had to been done by catapult in the vicinity of a steep hillside or cliff.


Flugzeugbau modern glider. Image from Wikipedia Common. These gliders are usually non-powered, deriving lift from rising air currents. This class of glider appears to have a wingspan in the 15 meter category (about 49 feet). Typically carries 1 pilot; trainer versions carry 2. With the right weather conditions and an experienced pilot, these aircraft can soar in excess of 15,000 feet high (if the pilot carries oxygen), and glide for hundreds of miles.

Getting Away From It All

Tired of that boring Med vacation to Santorini, Sicily, or Corsica? For a hair-raising $33 million package tour, try this:

International Space Station

International Space Station Image from NASA. You can book tourist passage on this one-of-a-kind resort for $33 million USD. Launch is via Russian Soyuz, at the Baikonur launch site. This shot was taken from Shuttle Discovery on March 25, 2009. Follow the NASA link for original hi-rez image and many more images, or click the image above for a larger view..

5,228 total views, 1 views today