Published in Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame publication “The Flyer” >>
October 2016 >>
In 2014, we celebrated 100 years of the first commercial flight when a flying boat carrying one passenger flew 21 miles from St. Petersburg, Florida across the Bay of Tampa.
No one could have possibly have imagined then the extraordinary success achieved by civil aviation in the next 100 years!
This was by no means a linear progression.
The First World War provided a surge of innovation. The occasional bombs – dropped by hand at the start of the war – were soon followed by thousands of kilos of bombs carried by giant, two-engined airplanes. Engines had quadrupled in power, with a far better power to weight ratio.
By the end of the war, more than 150,000 aircraft had been produced, and about 1/3rd were still operational.
But those airplanes were not designed to carry freight or passengers, and no one attempted to set up regular passenger air services. However, many people saw great potential for freight and postal services.
At the end of World War 1, the French government decided to set up an air mail route nearly 3000 kilometers long from France through Spain and Morocco, and eventually to Dakar
1917 brought regular mail flights between Buenos Aires and Natal (Northern Brazil) and, subsequently between Santiago Chile and Buenos Aires.
In Canada, the first bush flying took place in 1918 to survey the Quebec wilderness, and flying boats were being used for forestry patrols in Northern Ontario and Quebec.
Air mail services of the R.A.F. to the Middle East from 1921 on laid the foundation for Imperial Airways. The U.K. to Australia service was inaugurated in 1927.
By 1931, KLM was operating between Amsterdam and Djakarta, and in 1933, Air France was born.
Air mail expanded rapidly in North America, and major U.S. banks became regular customers.
In 1928, Juan Trippe’s new Pan American Airways started its first international passenger route between Key West and Havana.
By 1934, Canadian Airways was flying 5.7 million pounds of freight, almost as much as the U.S. airlines and British Imperial Airways combined.
Trans Canada Airlines was established in 1937 to carry mail across the country – and, eventually, passengers.
The 1930’s brought better engines, metal structures replacing wood, retractable under carriages, and variable pitch propellers.
Safety and efficiency improved substantially, as the airliner evolved into a large monoplane, carrying up to 30 passengers plus baggage.
The Boeing 247 revolutionized air travel. With two 550 horsepower Pratt & Whitney “wasp radial” engines, it could fly 50 mph faster than any other airliner; and it was more economical to operate.
The Douglas DC-3, developed in the mid 1930’s, was virtually unmatched for adaptability, whether for mainline passenger routes or for military purposes. 17,399 were produced in total. General Eisenhower rated it as one of the four most significant items of war-winning equipment!
The Second World War accelerated the development of more efficient piston engines, and aerodynamics.
But bigger was not always better. The most powerful piston engine ever built developed 4,300 horsepower and had 28 cylinders. Reliability became a big problem.
The Second World War also signaled the introduction of jet engines.
The first commercial airliner powered by a turbo jet engine was the Dehavilland Comet, which had four Dehavilland “Ghost turbo jets”, each developing 5000 pounds of thrust.
In 1955, Pratt & Whitney’s JT3 engine developed 13,500 pounds of thrust, and achieved a 24% fuel burn improvement over the Comet’s engines.
The productivity of passenger airliners quadrupled in the 60`s. The Douglas DC-8 and the Boeing 707`s carried twice the number of passengers at twice the speed of the larger piston-driven passenger airliners.
The Boeing 747, in 1970, offering three times the capacity of the earlier Boeing 707, introduced the so-called `wide-body` – and the beginning of mass travel.
With the exception of the supersonic Concorde which flew 100 passengers at twice the speed of sound, the speed of passenger airplanes has remained around 0.8 mach, avoiding the problems associated with crossing the sound barrier. The Concorde was a great technical achievement but an economic failure. It ceased operating in 2003.
The turbo-fan, developed in the late 80’s, introduced a larger fan which passed part of the air around the engine making it run cooler and quieter, substantially increasing the efficiency of the turbo-jet. The original turbofan had a one to one by-pass ratio.
Successive increases in the size and range of wide-body commercial airplanes, required bigger, more powerful and efficient engines.
The largest airliner today, the Airbus A-380, was certified to 853 passengers. It has a range of 15,700 kms (8,500 miles) and a cruising speed of 0.86 mach.
The 3-class configuration seats 544 passengers.
The Boeing B.777X proposal, still to be produced, will have a range of 14,000 kms and a 440 passenger configuration which Boeing believes will match the seat/cost of the A.380.
Turbofan engines have successfully increased in thrust and by-pass ratio. The Boeing 777X engines will require upward of 105,000 pounds of thrust.
And fuel efficiency has constantly improved. The current commercial airplane consumes per seat barely 18% compared with the Comet with a by-pass ratio of up to 10/1.
The industry has set itself the ambitious target of becoming totally carbon neutral by 2050. Increasingly efficient turbo engines with higher by-pass ratios, less polluting bio-fuel, and perhaps hybrid electrical propulsion – all should help achieve that demanding target.
The various developments in our propulsion systems have largely but not uniquely contributed to making commercial aviation a very efficient, worldwide, mass transportation system.
Today, the aviation industry transports safely more than 3.8 billion passengers p.a., and moves travelers from one side of the planet to the other in less than a day.
The price of air travel continues to fall in relative terms, and traffic continues to grow along its historical growth curve of 4.5-5 % p.a., at least for the foreseeable future, as nearly everyone joining the “middle class, particularly but not uniquely in Asia, aspires to becoming an international tourist.
Pierre J Jeanniot, O.C., C.Q.