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The Birth and Development of the Airplane

Finally, on Dec. 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first piloted airplane off the beach near Kitty Hawk, N. C. Henri Blériot and Glenn H. Curtiss made significant improvements in airplane design and, as more powerful engines became available, flew successively longer distances. In 1909 Blériot flew across the English Channel; ten years later a Curtiss-designed flying boat crossed the Atlantic Ocean. At first aviation development was motivated by the large prizes put up by publicity-seeking newspapers; but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 provided far greater motivation for aviation research and development (see air forces. The cessation of hostilities made available a large number of aircraft that could be bought cheaply, and the result was a great deal of aviation activity; barnstorming and stunt-flying kept aviation before the eyes of the public for a time, but the real stimulus was the initiation of airmail service in the mid-1920s. The intrepid airmail pilots caught the fancy of the public, and out of this group came the famous solo fliers Lindbergh, St-Exupéry, and others.

During the 1930s aviation continued to expand. Technological improvements in wind-tunnel testing, engine and airframe design, and maintenance equipment combined to provide faster, larger, and more durable airplanes. The transportation of passengers became profitable, and routes were extended to include several foreign countries. TransPacific airmail service, begun by Pan American Airways (later Pan American World Airways) in 1934, was followed by the first transoceanic aviation service for passengers, on the China Clipper, from San Francisco to Manila (to Hong Kong in 1937). In 1939 the first transatlantic service carrying both mail and passengers was inaugurated.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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