We’ve come a long way since the first hot air balloon took to the skies in France on November 21, 1783. There have been some blips and blimps along the way, but air travel is safer than ever, faster than ever (well, except for that Concorde), and takes us farther than ever before. Take a look at this timeline to see how far we’ve come since that first successful crash-landing in a French field!
The Chinese in the Three Kingdoms era used floating lanterns, called Konming lanterns, for military signaling. Though unmanned, these are the first recorded air-borne contraptions.
This was an active year for air travel! Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers create a light “gas bag” to be filled with hydrogen. They shock all Parisians and some outlying villagers on August 27 when it is released and floats 45 minutes! It makes its way down the Champs de Mars (before the Eiffel Tower came in) and floats north 21 kilometers to Gonesse, where the locals attack the contraption with knives and pitchforks.
A short time later, the Montgolfier brothers fly a similar balloon, this one with a basket attached containing a duck, sheep, and rooster.
On November 21, the first manned aircraft takes flight carrying two men for 25 minutes, covering 5 miles. Take a look at the hot air balloons of today:
Guillaume Joseph Gabriel de La Landelle coins the term “aviation” from the Latin word “avis,” meaning “bird.”
After a series of experiments with gliders, wind tunnels, and theories, the Wright Flyer is born! The Wright brothers test hundreds of wing configurations, design a low-combustion engine, and improve propeller designs to finally come up with a craft that could fly, if only for short times at first. The first of many Wright Brother flights takes off on December 17. The brothers also make great strides in safety designs due to the need to teach themselves to fly without perishing in the inevitable crashes that come with pioneering flight.
French Baroness Raymonde de la Roche becomes the world’s first licensed female pilot.
Airmail becomes a thing, albeit unofficial. A man by the name of Fred Wiseman flies from Petaluma, CA, to Santa Rosa, CA, with three letters for delivery. Airmail will be official the next day as a publicity stunt for an exhibition in then-British India.
1914-1918 (World War I)
Airplanes advance by leaps and bounds during World War I. We see the first ever fighter planes in air-to-air combat during this era. Ever heard of the Red Baron?
May 20-21, little-known, 25 year old air mail pilot Charles Lindbergh becomes the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from New York to Paris. Six other pilots previously lost their lives attempting it, competing for the $25,000 Orteig prize. Today there are countless flights to and from anywhere in the world, but in 1927 this was no small task. When Lindbergh lands in France, 33 1/2 hours after his take-off, he causes the largest traffic jam in Parisian history due to all the spectators who come to see history land before their eyes. Think about that on your next trans-Atlantic flight!
Amelia Earhart, already an accomplished pilot by male and female standards, becomes the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. For this accomplishment, she receives awards from the French government and the U.S. Congress. She also becomes the first woman to receive the Gold Medal from the National Geographic Society.
May: The Hindenburg incident occurs in Lakehurst, NJ. While “airships” like the Hindenberg had been flying around the world since September 1929 and commercially across the Atlantic since October 1929, the Hindenburg accident put an almost instant stop to this form of travel. Other airship disasters had happened, but this one is particularly devastating. You know the phrase, “Oh, the humanity!”? Now you know where it came from.
July: Amelia Earhart, her navigator, and her plane are lost somewhere in the Pacific on her attempt to circumnavigate the globe by air.
1939-1945 (World War II)
Airplanes carry the bombs to Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But they also help the Allies win the war from the air in Europe and in the Pacific. The Enola Gay aircraft drops the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. After the War ends, airplanes dropped supplies to help rebuild Western Europe. During World War II, aviation sees advancements in production, tactics, speed, and more.
Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in October. Some fighter pilots may have done so flying missions in World War II, but this time they do it on purpose and harness the technology.
Commercial air travel really takes off (so to speak)! Airlines like Northwest, KLM, Pan American, Trans World Airlines (TWA), American, Delta, Quantas, Avianca, British Commonwealth Pacific, United, and others dominate the skies and practically beg for passengers. Many of the first commercial planes are repurposed wartime aircraft, and the pilots are former military aviators as well. The feeling of triumph over the Great Depression and the Axis Powers literally gives Americans and people all over the world the confidence to fly!
Soviet Yuri Gagarin orbits the Earth once in 108 minutes. American Alan Shepherd also launches into space, and the “Space Race” is on!
Americans Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon. Neil and Buzz walk on it.
The Boeing 747 becomes the largest passenger aircraft to fly.
The Concorde makes its maiden flight, though without passengers.
The Concorde begins regularly scheduled commercial flights.
Texas International Airlines begins the first frequent flyer program, rewarding passengers for loyalty.
The first round-the-world flight is completed without stopping or refueling. The aircraft is a Rutan Model 76 Voyager, piloted by Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, and the flight takes just over 9 days.
Once considered one of the safest aircraft, the Concorde retires due to high costs, low passenger turnout, and safety concerns following a 2000 Air France accident.
Air India sets the record for the longest passenger flight to date. The route from Delhi, India, to San Francisco, California, takes 14.5 hours and covers 9,507 miles (15,300 km). There are flights that are longer in duration, but because of tailwinds and savvy routing, this flight can cover more distance in less time!
What will the next milestone be? The sky is no longer the limit!