It’s a sad fact that war is the ultimate catalyst to scientific progress. Aviation has benefited greatly from the abundance of wars and preparations for war. Combined with the enormous commercial benefits of a successful aviation industry, its no surprise to see what’s happened to aviation in the past century.
Science was hard at work solving the maddening inability to fly in a heavier than air machine centuries ago. Bernoulli and Newton laid down much of the groundwork for flight quite unknowingly. Science proved that lift could be generated to overcome gravity and that engines could be built to generate thrust. Aerodynamics could minimize drag and enable control. It was no doubt a surprise when two bicycle makers put the last pieces of the puzzle together first, achieving powered flight.
Aviation science quickly branched into several areas. Aerodynamics, engines and propulsion, materials and metallurgy, and structure all became dependant on each other. Electronics, avionics and of course weapons, would eventually join the constant efforts to improve aircraft.
World War One changed airplanes from an exciting novelty to something governments would spend money on. Very few scientific pursuits are free after all. The end of the war left us with very capable machines, setting the foundation for a solid industry. The desperate need for superior aircraft during World War Two fuelled scientific progress immensely. By wars end we had created large bombers, fast fighters and everything in between.
Aerodynamics advanced so much that supersonic flight was within reach. Metal and structural sciences matured to the point that we still use much of the technology today. Piston engines reached a pinnacle of complexity. Scientific advancements in avionics, including radar, accelerated.
Continued progress in increasingly difficult areas became so expensive that only the cold war could fuel them. The result was very fast and very large jet powered aircraft. The science behind aeronautical weapons benefited greatly by advances in electronics and computer technology. Avionics also grew in leaps and bounds. Vacuum tube technology gave way to transistors and computer chips.
Material sciences have yielded alloys with incredible properties. Continued developments in composite materials are enabling advances in structure of aircraft, including stealth technology. Lighter and stronger has always been the name of the game. Titanium and alloys of aluminium and magnesium are unbelievably strong and light. The development of advanced steel as well as casting, forging and extrusions are driving improvements.
Aircraft have benefited from the accumulation of countless fields of science. They are designed with advanced computer models and wind tunnels. The structure is composed of many advanced materials and manufacturing techniques. The field of jet engine design uses science fiction type ceramics and alloys as well as precise construction. The difference between spacecraft and aircraft is getting blurry.
Aircraft routinely take off and land with very little input from the pilots. The Space Shuttle hits mach 25 in orbit around our planet. High mach X planes fly ever faster. Small, efficient jet powered personal aircraft are now attainable by many.
It’s almost hard to comprehend how far science has advanced aviation in the past century. The Wright brothers would be astonished to see what has been accomplished within the lifetime of some people. Could this pace continue for another hundred years? Some of us may be alive to see twenty second century technology in the hands of a Lockheed Martin or Boeing type company.