Top Aerospace Milestones

1903-1919, Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties


  1. Wright Brothers – Achieved powered, manned flight on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
  2. Glenn Curtiss – Early aircraft design pioneer. Won the Collier Trophy for designing the hydroplane and the flying boat.
  3. Glenn Martin – Early aircraft design pioneer
  4. Early exhibition pilots–Lincoln Beachey, etc.-(circa 1915)
  5. Louis Béchereau – Development of the monocoque fuselage in 1912. Means “single shell.” The load is partially carried by the skin rather than by the internal framework.
  6. Eugene Ely – Opened the door to naval aviation with carrier takeoffs and landings in 1910
  7. St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line – First organized airline in 1914
  8. Igor Sikorsky – Built first multi-engined aircraft in Russia in 1913
  9. Hugo Junkers– German aircraft designer; pioneered use of all-metal aircraft structures for civil and military use. 1915.
  10. Anthony Fokker – Dutch-American aircraft designer and manufacturer, with great influence on developments in airplane construction, particularly in the use of welded steel tubing in fuselage construction.
  11. Elmer A. Sperry develops gyroscopic controls (1914), drift indicator (1916), and other controls setting the stage for advances in aircraft instrumentation.
  12. National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – First government-sponsored support of aviation research and development initiated in 1915.
  13. Allan and Malcomb Loughhead – Early American aircraft design and development. Later changed spelling of name to Lockheed.
  14. First transatlantic air crossing– 1919; LCdr. Reed in a American Navy Curtiss NC-4 flying boat.
  15. First nonstop air crossing of the Atlantic– 1919; by Captain Alcock and Lt. Brown flying in a Vickers Vimy bombers powered by two Rolls Royce engines.
  16. First sustained regular international service for commercial passengers opens between Paris and Brussels in 1919.

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  1. Billy Mitchell – Advocated development of a powerful air force by United States
  2. Air Mail – Post Office developed its own fleet of mail planes
  3. Kelly Act of 1925- Post Office shifted delivery of airmail to competition by bid from private airlines. This launched a series of successful commercial airline routes.
  4. Light beacons- Rotating beacons were constructed by the Post Office so pilots could fly the mail routes at night. (1919-1924)
  5. Barnstormers – Pushed aviation technology using surplus WWI aircraft
  6. Ford Trimotor-Built in 1926, first all-metal aircraft designed for passengers, rather than mail, with an enclosed Duralumin cabin.
  7. Air-cooled engines– Replaced water-cooled engines, reducing weight and making bigger and faster planes possible.
  8. Charles Lindbergh – First solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927-its effect was to attract millions of investment dollars to the industry.
  9. Transcontinental Air Transport– (TAT) First transcontinental air-rail network. 1929. Lindbergh flew the first leg of the trip.
  10. William Boeing – American aircraft design and development. Started Pacific Aero Products Company in 1916: changed name to Boeing Airplane Company the following year. First major contract was building trainers for the Navy. Boeing went on to become the largest manufacturer of airplanes in the world.
  11. Donald Douglas – American aircraft designer. Started his company in 1920 in California; his first plane became the flagship plane of Ryan’s San Diego-Los Angeles airline, one of the first scheduled airlines; went on to become one of the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers; later merged with McDonnell, then Boeing.
  12. The Cloudster- The first U.S. aircraft that could carry a useful load exceeding its own weight. Built by Douglas in 1921.
  13. Artificial horizon–James H. Doolittle helped design the artificial horizon, which told the pilot the exact attitude of the plane in relation to the earth-important for flying in reduced visibility. In September 1929 he flew entirely by the use of instruments and radio aids from takeoff to landing without reference to the ground.
  14. Increased engine power- By the end of the 1920s, the British developed a 2350 horsepower, liquid-cooled Rolls-Royce engine, demonstrating an almost 200-fold increase in power in less than three decades.
  15. Ford Air Transport- begins operations, and although not for public benefit, was the first sustained passenger/cargo airline in the U.S.
  16. Robert H. Goddard– Father of American rocketry, launches the first liquid propellant rocket in 1926, the forerunner of engines that would launch into space.
  17. Aircraft Carriers- A mobile air base. Major air carriers were built in the late twenties and thirties. The U.S.S. Langley was the first American air carrier.
  18. Jack Northrop -American aircraft designer. Pioneer of the "Flying Wing" design; founder of Northrop; later merged with Grumman.
  19. Fred Rentscheler – Early American aircraft engine development. President of Pratt & Whitney, manufacturer of the air-cooled engine.
  20. Link Trainer– First electro-mechanical flight simulator invented in 1929-revolutionized training of pilots and was the forerunner of today’s complex simulators.

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  1. Radio beacons- Ground-based radio beacons were constructed by the Department of Commerce in 1932, transmitting directional beams to pilots, allowing them to locate airports in poor visibility
  2. First blind solo flight–1931; Capt. A. F. Hegenberger accomplishes the first blind solo flight entirely on instruments (with no check pilot on board) in a Consolidated NY-2
  3. Grumman– Established in 1930, began with amphibious floats for use on air carriers. (XFF-1, “Fifi”)
  4. Cantilevered wing- Eliminated the need for exterior bracing.
  5. Sperry Autopilot – 1933; Prototype used by Wiley Post in his Lockheed Vega "Winnie Mae" on the first round-the-world solo flight.
  6. Pitcairn- 1933; autogyro technology developed for rotary aircraft.
  7. Boeing 247D – First modern airliner was built in 1933, with a variable pitch propeller, an autopilot, and retractable landing gear. It carried 10 passengers and could fly up to 10,000 feet at 200 mph.
  8. Lockheed Model 10 Electra- 1934; Trend setting airplane. Amelia Earhart used this plane in her attempt to fly around the world.
  9. Jet Engine– Britain’s Frank Whittle designed and patented the first jet engine in 1930.
  10. VS-300 helicopter – First practical helicopter, developed by Igor Sikorsky. It had a large main rotor and a smaller vertical rotor on the tail boom, and set the standard for helicopter design that is still in use today.
  11. B-10 — World’s first operational metal monoplane bomber. 1932; built by Glenn Martin
  12. DC-1 – Designed in 1933 by Douglass. The exterior of the plane bore the stress during flight, eliminating the need for interior spars.
  13. DC-3 – 1935; the first aircraft to make money carrying passengers rather than mail. Seated 21 passengers and its 1,000 horsepower engine made it possible to fly coast to coast in 16 hours. It proved air transport could be profitable. Ninety percent of air traffic was flying on DC-3s by 1940.
  14. Civil Aeronautics Authority – the beginning of a regulatory system for routes and rates. (1938.)
  15. B-17 – "Flying Fortress" 1935; served in every WWII combat zone.
  16. Pan Am Airways- Juan Trippe established the first airliner routes with Pan Am, the first international airline. (1927) These routes drew Latin America much closer to America in terms of communication and travel time. Creation of transoceanic infrastructure which made later developments possible.
  17. Flying Boats– Sikorsky, Martin, Boeing; The long-range airplanes of the 30s. Since there were no runways to accommodate large-size planes, they had to land in the water.
  18. Boeing 314- The largest passenger transport of its time. Carried 74 passengers and included a lounge, a dining salon, and a bridal suite. The seats could convert into 40 bunks. Boeing sold 12 planes to Pan American Airways, which made its first transatlantic flight in 1939.
  19. Amphibians- Planes fitted with a boat hull and specifically designed landing gear that can be extended to allow the plane to taxi right out of the water onto land.
  20. General Aviation – Piper, Cessna and Beech– Opened up safe transportation for larger numbers of the population.
  21. Radar – Developed before WWII by the British as a means to track enemy aircraft. This technology became the heart of today’s air traffic control system.
  22. Cathode Ray Oscilloscope- A radar-created map-like outline of a countryside, showing aircraft as a pulsing light. Produced by the British in 1940.
  23. Transponders-The Americans invented transponders, which would signal their identity to their radar.

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  1. Boeing Stratoliner -First pressurized cabin (1940)- flew above the turbulence that upset passengers’ stomachs. Could fly up to 20,000 feet. Its 12-foot wide cabin held 33 passengers with berths for overnight travel.
  2. World War II– Mass production of aircraft. From the beginning of WWII, production of planes increased from 500 a year to 50,000 a year by the war’s close.
  3. B-29 – "Superfortress" First bomber with crew-cabin pressurization and remotely controlled power turrets. Two B-29s dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  4. Mustang P-51-Laminar-flow wing reduced drag and improved aerodynamics, had range to escort bombers across Germany.
  5. Computers-First developed by the Navy during WWII. Computers, using binary language was first used for high-speed calculations for the Manhattan project, for code breaking and for artillery purposes. Later revolutionized design, business and manufacturing systems.
  6. Lockheed Constellation– 1945; Most advanced airliner in the world for that time– Fully pressurized, flying nonstop from New York to Paris. First real transatlantic jet liner, flying up to 30,000 feet. Opened up high-volume passenger service.
  7. DC-6 — 1946; Another great jet that greatly reduced traveling time with greater comfort for passengers. Made air travel economically viable.
  8. B-36 — 1947 — Convair strategic bomber. Six piston engines, plus four jets, gave the U.S. intercontinental bombing capability.
  9. Norden Bomb Sight — 1940; Very sophisticated sight used on planes, enabled bombardiers to make accurate, high-level bombings.
  10. Jet Engine Development – Hans Von Ohain. The Germans built and tested the first jet engine in the late 30s. (Whittle designed one, but didn’t get to test it on a plane until later.) Ohain’s design flew, but not very well. It took another five years to perfect the engine by the end of the war. Germans deployed the first operational jet in 1944 (ME2-62)
  11. P-80– 1944; First operational jet. Built by Lockheed, led to the T-33 (trainer).
  12. FH-1 "Phantom" First combat jet aircraft to operate from the deck of a US aircraft carrier and the Navy’s first airplane to fly 500 mph.
  13. Atomic Bomb- A weapon of mass destruction that made the great fleets of four-engine, propeller-driven, bombers with TNT payloads instantly obsolete.
  14. Swept-wing design- Wing design made possible by more powerful engines; more efficient because of less drag.
  15. F-86 – "Sabre Jet" 1947; Made by North American, the F-86 was America’s first single-seat, swept-wing jet fighter.
  16. B-47 bomber-"Stratojet bomber"; first multi-engine, swept-wing bomber. (1947)
  17. Bell X-1, a rocket-powered research plane broke the sound barrier in 1947. Chuck Yeager made the first supersonic flight by man in California.

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  1. Turboprop- Gas turbine engine which drives a conventional propeller.
  2. Wernher von Braun – German-American rocket technology development
  3. Redstone rocket engine- America’s first orbiting satellite, the Explorer I, was launched in 1958 using a Jupiter C rocket powered by a North American Rocketdyne Redstone engine. In 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in s pace when he was launched on a suborbital flight by a Redstone rocket engine.
  4. Boeing B-52 bomber- 1952; first all-jet, swept-wing bomber to make intercontinental bombing runs.
  5. F-101 – Voodoo – The McDonnell Voodoo was a supersonic fighter designed to escort bombers, serve as a fighter bomber, an all-weather interceptor, and a photo-reconnaissance aircraft.
  6. KC-135- 1956; only jet tanker designed specifically to refuel bombers in flight.
  7. Boeing 707- First successful jet airliner to enter passenger service. (The 707 was modeled after the KC-135.) Carried 181 passengers and traveled at 550 mph. Pan Am flew the first 707 in 1957 and other airlines were quick to order the 707 and the DC-8. Over a million passengers flew the Atlantic in 1958, surpassing the total of Atlantic steamship passengers for the first time.
  8. T-104 — 1955; Russia developed the first sustained jet transport service in the world.
  9. Lockheed Electra– 1958; First US turboprop airliner.
  10. DC-8 – First Douglas jet transport could carry 259 passengers flying more than 4,500 miles nonstop.
  11. Federal Aviation Administration- 1958, Charged with the running the air traffic control system and with all safety issues, certification, training, and maintenance.
  12. Supersonic Military Aircraft – Lockheed F-104– 1954 First operational fighter capable of sustained flight at Mach 2.
  13. Advanced Technology Military Aircraft – Northrop B-49 Flying Wing 66.
  14. Atlas (Convair) – 1951, First liquid-fueled intercontinental missile with a range of more than 5,000 miles. Combined with nuclear warheads, and computer guidance systems, this missile changed the nature of warfare and our concept of preparedness.
  15. Turbine engines for Helicopters–The first flight of a Kaman 225 powered by a Boeing 502 gas turbine engine on December 10, 1951, offered reduced noise, less vibration, and higher power to weight ratio and greater reliability, the turbine proved a major breakthrough for the helicopter industry.
  16. The Comet – First jet airliner put into service in by BOAC in 1952. Great Britain was the first nation to use gas turbine propulsion for air transports. Two accidents caused by metal fatigue caused airlines to cancel their orders and gave the American jet industry a chance to catch up.
  17. Integrated circuits– Jack St. Clair Kirby and Robert N. Noyce co-invent the integrated circuit, which eliminated the need for hundreds of heavy vacuum tubes in electronic equipment for planes.
  18. U-2 — 1955; Extremely long-range strategic high altitude reconnaissance jet.
  19. Sputnik — Soviets launch the first satellite in space in 1957. This catalyzed the development of the US space program.
  20. Establishment of NASA — Created by President Eisenhower and Congress in 1958 to develop a non-military space exploration program.
  21. US Explorer 1-1958; first US satellite launched in space.

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  1. Airline Business Development (1960s and 1970s)
  2. SR-71 — 1962; Very high altitude high speed jet built by Lockheed. Could map huge areas of the world and do reconnaissance anywhere in the world.
  3. Laser technology – The first working ruby laser was developed at Hughes Research Laboratories on May 15, 1960, ushering in a new world of technology in communications, machining, and measurement changing military operations with more precise range accuracy leading to reduced consumption of ammunition and bombs.
  4. Delta-An expendable launch vehicle. Its first launch in 1960 placed the first passive communications satellite in orbit. It also launched the first commercial communications satellite, and the first Air Force Global Positioning System satellites and Pioneer 6.
  5. Syncrom II — The world’s first geosynchronous satellite was launched on July 26, 1963, demonstrating that satellites were not only commercially efficient, but could revolutionize international communications.
  6. USSR’s Vostok Program — Vostok was the Soviet program for manned space vehicles begun in 1959. Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space on April 12, 1961 with a single orbit of the Earth.
  7. Mercury Program — The Mercury program was started in 1958 by NASA. Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American in space in May 1961. John Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. M. Scott Carpenter orbited the Earth three times, and Walter M. Schirra flew six times around the Earth. The last Mercury mission was completed in 1963 with the 34 hour mission of L. Gordon Cooper.
  8. Gemini Program (First American spacewalk) 1963-1966 Gemini was a more sophisticated space capsule that could carry two crewmembers and develop the space experience and skills leading to the lunar mission. Most importantly, Gemini developed techniques for orbital rendezvous. Edward H. White’s 20-minute space walk was the high point of a four-day mission in June 1965.
  9. USSR’s Voskhod Program– The Soviet Union’s intermediate space program, similar to Gemini. The Soviets developed a spacecraft “soft-landing” system and eliminated spacesuits and the ejection apparatus.
  10. Lunar Orbiter-1966; the first US spacecraft to orbit the moon. Five 850-pound Orbiters photographed 99 percent of the moon’s surface.
  11. Apollo Program- 1966-1972, Apollo’s goal was to land a man on the moon, a mission accomplished with the Apollo 11 flight on July 20, 1969. Seven more expeditions to the moon provided the world with more detailed examinations of the moon. A tragic accident ended the lives of three American astronauts, Grissom, Chaffe and White when fire swept their spacecraft on January 27, 1967.
  12. Rocketdyne engines- provided main engines for each of the Apollo-Saturn stages.
  13. Soyuz Program (USSR)– The Soyuz program’s goal was to develop a series of successively updated space stations, with which they docked in about 16 flights.
  14. Boeing 747- first wide-body airliner followed by the L1011 and the DC10. Helped make international travel more affordable.
  15. Saturn Program-Launch boosters for Apollo spacecraft. The first series built specifically for manned launches.
  16. Saturn V – Gigantic, 3-stage launch (36 stories high) designed to reach lunar surface.
  17. The Concorde– In 1969 a British-French consortium moves into the commercial supersonic aircraft field with the first flight of the Concorde.
  18. The Harrier Jet– Built by British Aerospace; first vertical takeoff and landing practical for military aircraft.

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  1. ILS- Instrument Landing System, an ultra-precise radio beacon and receiver.
  2. F-14A Tomcat– 1972; Carrier interceptor, built by Grumman, the F-14A is one of the best and longest-lived of all the world’s fighter aircraft.
  3. Mariner 2 – First spacecraft to explore another planet. In 1973, the Mariner spaceprobe skirted Venus and flew by Mercury. Took photos of clouds on Venus and craters in Mercury.
  4. Skylab-1973-1974, laboratory and workshop put into orbit. In three missions, crews spent several months in orbit, providing proof that man could tolerate weightlessness for extended periods.
  5. Landsat 1, America’s first environmental satellite, launched in 1972, opened up new ways of looking at the earth with the world’s first multi-spectral scanner and three television cameras.
  6. E3A-AWACS- 1976; Airborne Warning and Control System, an electronic surveillance system capable of detecting any airborne vehicles.
  7. AV8B- "Harrier II" (1978) First really practical fixed wing vertical shot take-off and landing aircraft still in operational service. Made by McDonnell-Douglas.
  8. F/A-18- "Hornet" 1978; fighter and attack aircraft
  9. Microchips- played a crucial role in managing space travel such as the Intel 4004, the first microprocessor launched on the Pioneer 10 in 1972, which will reach the star Ross in 32,000 years and is the human artifact that has traveled the farthest from Earth.
  10. Skylab- 1973-74, laboratory and workshop put into orbit. In three missions, crews spent several months in orbit, proving man can tolerate weightlessness for extended periods.
  11. Apollo-Soyuz Test Project- 1975; NASA collaborated with Russian officials. The two crews rendezvoused and docked. Last flight of the Apollo-Saturn hardware.
  12. AH-64 Apache attack helicopter- 1975; has a target acquisition and designation system, pilot’s night vision sensor, Longbow radar and Hellfire missiles.
  13. Airline Deregulation Act of 1978; ended government regulation of routes and rates. Increased competition, resulting in more service and lower fares for passengers. A major boost to air travel. Resulted in airline consolidations.
  14. Air Launched Cruise Missiles- Self-guided missiles with a nuclear or conventional warhead to be deployed by a bomber. Can "see" the terrain and fly over 1,500 miles.
  15. Mir Space Station- Soviet-built (permanent habitation in space)
  16. Viking 2 Lander (Mars) Touches down on Mars in 1976 and sends back more than 1,400 pictures.

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  1. Space Shuttle Program (Columbia) First flight on April 12, 1981.
  2. First American Woman in Space – Sally Ride, 1983
  3. Manned Maneuvering Unit– 1984; Martin Marietta-built unit allows astronauts to free float outside the space shuttle Challenger.
  4. Mir (Russian Space Station) and Shuttle Missions- Challenger, Discovery
  5. Hubble Telescope- Launched in April, 1990 in orbit around the earth.
  6. Boeing 777 – first airliner designed solely by computer aided design technology (CAD).
  7. Large bypass jet engines (P&W, GE, Rolls Royce)- Turbofans combined the hot air jet with the bypassed air from a fan. The use of bypass air created a quieter engine with greater boost at low speeds.
  8. Composite materials- Such as carbon carbon. Extremely strong, lightweight materials. Decreased structural weight in aircraft.
  9. Stealth Fighter-F-117A First operational aircraft designed to avoid radar detection.
  10. B-2 Bomber- Large "flying wing" incorporating stealth technology to evade radar and capable of flying 6,000 miles without refueling with 40,000 pounds of bombs.
  11. F-16- Fighting Falcon; ushered in a new era of lightweight fighters for the Air Force in 1975; it is still in production and more than 3,000 are still active.
  12. V-22 Osprey tiltrotor transport- Built by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing. First flown in 1989. Combines the vertical lift capabilities of a helicopter with the speed and range capabilities of an airplane.
  13. Winglets- Allowed for longer-range.
  14. SR-71–“Blackbird” by Lockheed sets the first of many records for speed in 1974.
  15. Voyager – 1986, All composite construction. Burt Rutan flew the first around the world flight without stopping or refueling.
  16. Fly-by-wire technology- Electronic signals actuate mechanical movement in the plane, eliminating the need for heavy cables.
  17. UAV’s- Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (1985) Provides intelligence and reconnaissance capability to field commanders. Provides high quality video imagery for artillery or naval gun fire adjustment, and battle damage assessment.

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  1. F-22 – First test flown in 1990. Lockheed, Boeing and General Dynamics built this fighter, designed to combine stealth, supersonic cruise, high maneuverability, advanced avionics, and internal weapons carriage.
  2. C-17, 1991 “Globemaster" can hold 102 troops, 48 litters, 54 ambulatory patients or 170,900 pounds of cargo. Received the Collier trophy for most versatile airlift aircraft in aviation history.
  3. Mars Pathfinder- Launched with a low-cost lander and rover. It sends back more than 16,500 pictures.
  4. Global Positioning System (GPS)- A constellation of satellites that revolutionized navigation and surveillance.
  5. Gulfstream V- World’s first ultra-long range business jet.
  6. Regional Jet – development of medium-size jet airliners for regional airline operations
  7. VentureStar – The X-33; single state-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle by Lockheed Martin.
  8. Globalization- international aerospace consolidations and mergers
  9. International Space Station Development- Permanent orbiting laboratory in space. Built by 15 nations. First components placed in orbit in 1999. 356 feet wide, orbiting 225 miles above the earth.

by: Walter Boyne, retired USAF Colonel, former Director of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, historian and author of 28 books with fiction and non-fiction on the best sellers list of the New York Times.