6 Important Milestones That Defined Airplane History


The dream of flight has been part of human history for millennia. The history of aviation is colourful parade of innovators, daredevils and other compelled by the desire to soar through the skies. Reviewing the history of the development of the airplane, one stumbles over many interesting stories about such pioneers. Even though aviation software and technology have developed significantly over the decades, the industry was first revolutionized by these innovative pioneers who shaped the history of aviation.

This list highlights the six important milestone in airplane history, from the earliest powered aviation pioneers to the arrival of commercial airlines:

Historic Moment #1: The “Aerial Steam Carriage” (1848)

The first recorded airplane history began in 1848. This is the year when the first powered flight was conducted by John Stringfellow (1799–1883). Working with his business partner William Samuel Henson (1812–1888), they were able to get an unmanned steam-powered monoplane with a 10-foot wingspan to fly freely in Chard, Somerset, England. Stringfellow and Henson worked out of a former lace factory and patented their flying machine, The Ariel, in 1842.

The two had plans of developing the first airline—an international enterprise to be called the Aerial Steam Carriage. Unfortunately, their many designs proved unsuitable for their ambitions. Nevertheless their experiments marked an important shift in aviation away from gliders to powered flying machines.

Historic Moment #2: First to fly an airplane (1903)

Recent work has sought to rehabilitate the reputation of other aviation pioneers whose accomplishments may have predated that of the Wrights.  German aviation pioneer Karl Jatho (1873-1933) was reported to have made several flights near the German city of Hanover in different flying machines between August and November 1903 with the last involving a continuous flight of 60 meters at an altitude of 2.5 meters.

This was a month before the Wright brothers famous flights, which only achieved a distance of 37 meters. Unfortunately, Jatho waited 30 years to have his accomplishment certified and he would ultimately abandon his aerial pursuits. Local historical enthusiasts attempted to recreate Jatho’s flights following his original designs in September 2006, but weather conditions prevented successful flight.

Historic Moment #3: The Wright brothers importance (1903)

In addition to being celebrated for the four short headline-grabbing flights they completed on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville (1871–1948) and Wilbur Wright (1867–1912) are notable for many contributions to the airplane history. The brother had run a bicycle shop which they eventually abandoned to devote their full attention to aviation.

The most important contribution that the Wright brothers made to airplane design was the development that definitely built upon their expertise in bicycles. The brothers designed a three-axis control system that made it possible for the pilot to steer the airplane while maintaining equilibrium. This three-axis control system is a key principle still in use in most fixed-wing aircraft today.

Historic Moment #4: Barnstorming (1920s)

When looking at history, it is important to remember that the people living through any historical moment had no idea what would happen or how the world would change. Early aviation was a public spectacle as much as it was a scientific and engineering feat, means of transportation or military tool. Even the Wright brothers had put together flying exhibition teams before the First World War.

By the 1920s, aerial exhibitions called “Barnstorming” had become an international phenomenon. With many wartime airplanes sold off as surplus, for the first time in history, individuals were able to buy planes cheap. Soon all kinds of pilots, including women and minorities, participated in traveling air shows from spring to fall. Some solo pilots would travel from town to town offering rides and stunt flying demonstrations in rural areas.

These exhibitions could include private rides, death-defying loops, and wingwalking. Aviator Charles Limbergh did some barnstorming early in his career. Barnstorming would decline with the arrival of Federal Aviation Regulations, the Great Depression and ultimately the growth of commercial aviation.

Historic Moment #5: Amelia Earhart’s posthumous firsts (1937)

You will have heard of Amelia Earhart and her momentous contributions to airplane history. Groundbreaking aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart (1897-1937?) was the first female aviator to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and she promptly repeated the feat solo, capturing international attention. Earhart used her celebrity to promote the twin advancement of the aviation industry and women’s rights.

Earhart and her navigator Captain Fred Noonan vanished over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937. Their disappearance was memorialised in song by Red River Dave McEnery in a song called “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight.”

The chorus ends “Happy landings to you, Amelia Earhart / Farewell, first lady of the air.”  Performed by McEnery at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, the song is believed to be the first song ever transmitted over commercial television.

Historic Moment #6: Early commercial air travel (1914)

Beginning in 1914 with a one-passenger flight from St. Petersburg, Florida to a river near Tampa, commercial aviation was a sensation. By the 1920s, aircraft specifically designed to carry passengers appeared. These planes held less than 20 passengers at a time and had to stop to refuel often, making air travel slower than traveling by rail.

Air travel in the 1920s was incredibly uncomfortable. The cabin was unpressurized and the rattle of metal was deafening. Planes had no insulation, making their interior incredibly loud and cold.  For example, the first passenger flight offered by Western Airlines was from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles with a stop in Las Vegas. The flight took 8 hours and cost $90 for a one-way ticket. It had only two passengers who had to sit on sacks of mail.