Home‎ > ‎Science & Technology‎ > ‎

Developments in Airplanes Between World War One and World War Two (Fall 2012)

            Undoubtedly, airplanes have been one of the most influential and fastest developing technologies for civilian use as well as in uses for war. Flight has transformed time and time again from when the Wright Brothers first wrangled the alluding fantasy of powered fight, flaying a mire twelve seconds, in 1903 to today’s new military unmanned prototypes reaching twenty-times the speed of sound (1). Even within the three decades entrenched with and between World War One and World War Two, one can see astonishing leaps and bounds of technological advancements. By understanding the political and governmental climate, depiction in the media and common ideas, roles of specific individuals, and science and technology all had a role in the development of airplanes and their use.

            First one must take a look at a force of history that can clame to be the airplane’s front most benefactors; politics and government. During diplomacy’s last resort one can see airplanes greatest strives. The planes produced at the beginning of the Would War One proved to be extremely primitive to even the airplanes manufactured at the end of the war. At the beginning of the war, planes were boxy, slow, and fighter pilots often died because their own machine guns, mounted behind their propeller, often shot off their propeller. ‘Bombers’, like the French Farmen MF.11 Shorthorn, looked more like bathtubs mounted with wings. By the end of the war, planes, like the British Airco DH. 5, were more aerodynamic, which helped increase speeds, and had mechanism that regulated the guns to shoot opposite of the spinning propeller blade (16).  In times of war airplanes must improve to out perform enemies. For instance, at the beginning or WWI military planes were built to fly at average speeds of around 70 miles per hour, but by the end or the war, four years later, planes were averaging twice that speed (2). At the end of WWII the top plane speeds were reaching 450 miles per hour (3). Speed is only one example of how war’s push for an advantage ended up setting in motion the development of airplanes in this time period. War changed the way humans used the airplane. After war proved the importance and efficiency of the airplane, things like the U.S. Airmail Service was established shortly after the First World War in 1918 (4). Another boost in aeronautical trust took place after the Second World War. At this time the commercial airline industry saw overwhelming growth (5). Whether technological change or a change in use, government, through war, has progressed the development of airplanes in this time period.

            As well as improvement through war, airplanes have seen alteration due to the media and social ideas. These historical factors had the most influence on two different developments between the World Wars. First of which would be distance of flight. After World War One, the world was engulfed by the dream to cross the Atlantic by plane. After accomplishment in 1919 by two British aviators, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown became heroes in the media (6). With imminent fame aviators and airplane producers looked to be apart of the next feat, a solo transatlantic flight. On May 21, 1927 Charles Lindbergh and his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, a Ryan monoplane, flew nonstop New York to Paris, a flight of 3,600 miles (7). His ambition to tackle this great adventure started when a businessman posted a prize for $25,000, worth just over $320,000 in today’s money, to the first man to single-handedly cross the Atlantic. He then oversaw his team in the construction of his plane. To conserve weight, that would be need to store 451 gallons of gas, his plane was built without essential things like a radio to call in coordinates or incase of emergency. He embarked on his thirty-three and a half hour flight with only four sandwiches and two cantinas of water. When landing in Paris 100,00 people ran to greet the new celebrity (15). Due to the recognition of iconic pilots, such as Charles Lindbergh, the common civilian became more trusting of air travel. Because of the increased demand for air travel, airplanes must grow larger to accommodate. Social acceptance pushed airplanes from a small 12 passenger DC-1 plane, the first self-equitable passenger plane, in 1933, to the 50 passengers Douglas C-54 Skymaster in 1945. Because the acceptance and astonishment of the common masses, plane’s flying distance and size both grew.

            With aid of media and idea acceptance, two people were able to change the plane and its use. Howard Hughes inherited a large fortune after the death of both his parents. In his late twenties he became obsessed with airplanes and aviation. During the 1930s he spent much of his time and money on improving airplanes and setting speed records. In 1935, he set the landplane speed record at 352 mph in a Hughes H-1, a plane he had built for himself with the newest technology. The plane was fashioned with retractable landing gear and rivets that were flush with the body of the airplane. Both of these innovations reduced drag to increase speeds. A year and a half later, Hughes, in the same plane, achieved the transcontinental record in 7 hours and 28 minutes flying nonstop from Los Angeles to Newark. This bested the last record, set by him, of 9 hours and 27 minutes. It is an unconfirmed assumption that his Hughes H-1 influenced many planes on both sides of World War Two (13). In 1944 he was given a contract to build a plane for the U.S. Army. Completed in 1947, the “Spruce Goose” was a largest airplane ever made. This flying boat could carry both troops and their equipment to the front (9). As Hughes changed the plane itself, Adolf Hitler changed how planes are used in the military. Hitler and his officers revolutionized the use of airplanes in their use in “Blitzkrieg”. Blitzkrieg in German translates to “the Lightning War”. It was just that. Hitler’s stagey was to invade and over take the enemy so quick they would not have a chance to fight back and defend themselves. Germany’s planes played a large role in this tactic due to German air superiority at the time (10). Despite his understanding and realization of the importance of bombing by aircraft, Hitler view airplanes as an extension of the army on the ground. This tactic was much different than that of the allies and in the beginning of the war was an extreme advantage (13). Hitler had put together an air force and a strategy that was unstoppable during the early part of the war. Through Hughes and Hitler, aviation was changed forever.

            While specific figures in history have brought innovation with the airplane’s mechanics and use, the development of new technology has also quickly advanced the airplane in this time period. One of the greatest improvements that took place between the two World Wars, and maybe the greatest innovation since the development of the airplane itself, was the creation of the jet powered engine. During the mid 1930s both Frank Whittle, a British engineer, and Hans von Ohain, a German engineer, were both working on the jet engine. Ironically the engineers were not collaborating and had never met, but their designs ended up being very similar. In 1937 Ohain succeeded in being the first person to develop an airplane that successfully used a jet engine, the Heinkle HE 178 (7). Whittle first developed the idea of a turbine or jet engine much earlier than Ohain, but the Royal Air Ministry denied him a patent since they were not concerned with building up their military force after the war to end all wars. Because of the government of Great Britain’s inability to foresee a chance of a second world war, Whittle did not receive funding and therefore lost valuable ground. To understand the great innovation of the jet engine one must know the basics of how the engine works. A jet engine can be broken up in to four major sections. From front to back, these sections are the fans, the compressor, the combustion chamber, and lastly the turbine. Air is first sucked in through the large front opening of the engine. The large fan blades spin at high rates of speed to get enough air through the engine to mix with fuel inside. The air will then move into the compressor. The compressor builds pressure and heat by to sets of blades; rotors, rotating blades, and stators, stationary blades. The hot, compressed air then moves into the combustion chamber. Here jet fuel is added. Because of the high temperatures and high pressure the fuel ignites and a continuous burn is held within the engine. The now quickly and immensely expanded gas is pushed into the last section of the engine, the turbine. The turbine works much like a windmill. The hot expanding gasses from the combustion chamber rocket threw the blades of the turbine. This spins the turbine, which is attached to the fans and blades in the compressor. The rotation of these front parts of the engine sucks in more air starting the process over again (12). With Whittle and Ohain’s ingenious to craft these engines, as pasted described, the speeds at which planes flew saw a great jump. The Messerschmitt Me 262, the first production military plane to use a jet engine, flew at 541mph, a speed almost 100 mph faster than the piston engine P-51D Mustang, flying 445mph. An astonishing twelve years later the jet engine went from a military prototype to a common commercial airline plane. The technology of this time period has forever changed the outlook of the airplane. 

            Political and governmental climate, depiction in the media and common ideas, roles of specific individuals, and science and technology has developed the airplane and its use during the World War time period and for the long-term future. It is easy to see how the development of the airplane was drive from a small, one person, open cockpit, canvas biplane to a colossal, steal, jet engine, super bomber. During this time period the airplane became more than a circus act or a once-in-a-lifetime site. They became an asset to every-day life and more importantly an asset to the common man. During and between the World Wars airplanes saw a great deal of advancements, a level of advancements that has arguably never been seen since.

  1. Space.com. (n.d.). Wright Brothers and the First Flight, The Greatest Moments in Flight. Retrieved November 30, 2012, from http://www.space.com/16634-wright-brothers-first-flight.html
  2. Unikoski, Ari. (2009). The War in the Air. Retrieved November 30, 2012.  From, http://www.firstworldwar.com/airwar/summary.htm
  3. Aircrafts.com. (n.d.) World War Two Aircraft. Retrieved November 30, 2012. From,  http://www.aircraftaces.com/best-aircraft.htm
  4. Keogh, Edward A. (n.d.) A Brief History of the Air Mail Service of the U.S. Post Office Department (May 15, 1918- August 31, 1927). Retrieved November 30, 2012 from, http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/Sagahistory.htm
  5. Wikipedia. (2012). Airline. Retrieved November 30,2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airline
  6. Keogh, Edward A. (n.d.) A Brief History of the Air Mail Service of the U.S. Post Office Department (May 15, 1918- August 31, 1927). Retrieved November 30, 2012 from, http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/Sagahistory.htm
  7. National Academy of Engineering. (n.d.) Airplane Timeline. Retrieved November 30, 2012, from  http://www.greatachievements.org/?id=3728
  8. Wikipedia. (2012). Douglas C-54 Skymaster. Retrieved November 30,2012 from  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_C-54_Skymaster#Operators
  9. Rosenburg, Jennifer. (n.d.) Howard Hughes. Retrieved November 30, 2012, from http://history1900s.about.com/od/people/p/hughes.htm
  10. Wikipedia. (2012). Use of Air Power. Retrieved November 30,2012 from   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blitzkrieg#Use_of_Air_Power
  11. Wikipedia. (2012). Blitzkrieg. Retrieved November 30,2012 from    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blitzkrieg
  12. GE Aviation. (n.d.) Engine 101. Retrieved November 30, 2012, from http://www.geaviation.com/education/engines101/
  13. Wikipedia. (2012). Howard Hughes. Retrieved December 2,2012 from    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Hughes
  14. Wikipedia. (2012). Air Supremacy. Retrieved December 2,2012 from     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_supremacy#Post_WW2_Regional_Wars
  15. Ranfranz, Patrick T. (2007). Charles Lindbergh, An American Aviator. Retrieved December 2, 2012, from http://www.charleslindbergh.com/history/paris.asp
  16. Military Factory. (2012) WW1 Aircraft. Retrieved December 2, 2012, from http://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft/