The histories of human flight and electronics are closely intertwined

Dec. 1, 2003

By John Keller, chief editor
Military & Aerospace Electronics

As of this month, powered flight is one century old. It was on Dec. 17, 1903, that Wilbur Wright and his brother Orville — two bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio — flew their box-kite-like Wright Flyer for 12 seconds over a windswept beach along the Outer Banks of North Carolina

One hundred years doesn't feel like a lot of time in relation to the entire rich sweep of human history, but consider the technological innovations surrounding manned flight since the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903; the time span sounds more like a thousand years than only a hundred.

Few human endeavors have inspired frenzied technological innovation as much as manned powered flight has. Of the technological development that manned flight spawned, electronic and optoelectronic technologies have been prime beneficiaries. Radio communications, inertial navigation, radar, radio and satellite navigation, infrared sensors, digital flight control, and optoelectronically networked mission computers are only a few of the technologies that manned flight has pushed along at a breathtaking pace.

To put the tremendously rapid pace of aviation technology into perspective, think about this: in the 44 years after the Wright Brothers' first flight, manned aircraft evolved from the Wrights' powered glider to transcontinental airlifters, to jet fighters, and to Chuck Yeager's first faster-than-the-speed-of-sound flight aboard the X-1 aircraft in 1947. Slightly less than 66 years after the Wrights' first flight — shorter than a typical person's lifetime — human flight moved from flying over the seashore at Kitty Hawk, N.C., to flying over the Sea of Tranquility on the moon.

I often remember my grandfather when I think about aviation. Born in 1899, he lived until 1976, and among the major events of his lifetime were the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon, and every technology innovation in-between. No other generation has seen such a rapid and relentless march of technology development as my grandfather's, and I have my doubts that I will see such radical innovation in my lifetime.

I think manned flight is such a catalyst for technological development because it so completely captures the imaginations of so many. With manned flight, so much seemed possible, and aviation pioneers such as the Wrights, Glen Curtiss, and Glenn Luther Martin competed tenaciously to determine who would benefit most from the early days of flight.

The Wrights and Curtiss formed their own aircraft companies, which eventually merged into a company that survives today — Curtiss-Wright Corp. of Roseland, N.J. Years ago, Curtiss-Wright primarily developed aircraft and aircraft engines, but today it concentrates on motion control, flow control, and metal treatment, and contains subsidiaries such as electronics specialist Vista Controls Corp. of Santa Clarita, Calif.

The early aviation pioneers had good reason to move ahead as quickly and doggedly as they did. The potential benefits at the time seemed almost limitless. Manned airplane flight — even distinct from manned space flight or unmanned aerial vehicle flight — ended up transforming the daily lives of even the most average among us. Without powered flight, we don't have express mail, reliable worldwide communications, or fast intercontinental travel.

Spinning-mass gyros were among the first technologies that systems designers brought to bear on powered flight. These devices, which led directly to reliable heading indicators, turn-and-slip indicators, and perhaps most importantly, the artificial horizon, enabled pilots to fly at night and in bad weather, and were among the first technological innovations that led to reliable airmail service in the 1920s.

Soon after, systems designers combined gyro-based instruments with a barometric altimeter, which enabled Jimmy Doolittle in 1929 to demonstrate how aircraft pilots could fly safely without being able to see outside the cockpit. Designers also found that combining these instruments led to development of the first autopilots.

Aircraft radios were among the first aviation electronics to see widespread use, and were perhaps the first components that gave rise to a new electronics design discipline that we know today as avionics.

By World War II, electronics designers were hard at work to develop the first radar systems to help warn Britain of approaching Nazi bombers. Designers also developed airborne radar systems to help fighter planes find other aircraft at night. Aircraft radars also gave rise to a shipborne radar system that during the war helped locate surfaced enemy submarines.

Radar development, spurred primarily by aviation, also led to commercial innovations, most notably the microwave oven. In 1946 Percy Spencer, an engineer with the Raytheon Co., discovered that a candy bar in his pocket had melted after he tested a new vacuum tube called a magnetron for a radar research project.

Later he pointed the magnetron at a bag of popcorn kernels and an egg; the kernels popped into popcorn and the egg exploded. Raytheon engineers went on to develop the first microwave oven, which they called the "Radarange."

After radar, came avionics innovations such as airborne datalinks, head-up displays, multifunction displays, so-called "glass cockpits," computer-controlled navigation and weapon systems, fly-by-wire and fly-by-light flight-control systems, and helmet-mounted displays.

Along the way, avionics designers gave rise to standard electronic modules to cut costs and boost efficiency. The SEM-E circuit card — short for standard electronic module — has been part of the avionics in several generations of aircraft. Today other standard cards such as VME and CompactPCI make their way into the latest avionics architectures.

Linking separate electronic-control systems on a digital datalink also is a big part of the heritage of flight. The MIL-STD-1553 1 megabit-per-second databus was developed and released by the U.S. Air Force in 1973, and has linked mission- and flight-control subsystems on such aircraft as the F-15 and F-16 jet fighters, as well as virtually all modern military aircraft.

All these technological innovations lead directly back to that windy beach in North Carolina a century ago. Without the Wrights, humans certainly would have achieved manned flight, and the electronics industry certainly would have progressed from its origins. Still, one wonders where the aviation and electronics industries would be today had it not been for Wilbur and Orville, and their daring exploits 100 years ago this month.

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