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Most people are familiar with the pioneering first powered flight by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. While lasting only twelve seconds and covering only 120 feet, this flight ignited an interest in flying that would soon span the entire globe. The event also marked the creation of the airplane and the world of aviation would never be the same again. One aspect of aviation that evolved from the Wright brothers first flight was that of commercial airplanes.
Commercial airplanes can be defined as privately owned airplanes in the business of providing a service to the general public. Most commercial airplanes are specially designed to carry passengers and/or cargo from one location to another. Almost everyone in the world today has either seen or used the services of commercial airplanes. The public uses these airplanes to travel swiftly for a variety of purposes ranging from business to vacationing. Businesses also use commercial airplanes to ship their products around the world. There are thousand of airports throughout the world and tens of thousands of commercial airplanes in service. In fact, the commercial airline industry has grown from a few planes to that of a multi-billion dollar industry in less than 90 years.
Commercial aviation dates back to 1910 and has evolved over the years from early "primitive" machines to that of today's modern supersonic transport planes. On June 22, 1910 the first regular passenger-carrying airship service was inaugurated. On this day the firm of Delag operated an inter-urban service in Germany. In 1914 the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line operated across Tampa Bay Florida and the Russian ll'ya Muromets flew from St. Petersburg Russia to Kiev and back to demonstrate the efficiency of a multiengined transport airplane. In this same period (1910 - 1914) aviation in general skyrocketed. Passenger carrying soon became an everyday event, night flying, seaplane flying, shipboard take-off and landings, long distance flying, airmail, parachuting and the formation of national air forces were all born during this period. The ability, however, of airplanes to carry cargo drove the development of commercial airplanes at this time.
By 1918 the United States Post Office had established an airmail service that ran between New York and Washington. By 1920 this same service extended from coast to coast. In 1919 the first sustained scheduled daily passenger air service started in Germany. This was the Deutsche Luftreederei servicing the domestic air route of Berlin - Leipzig - Weimar, Germany. France soon followed with the first international air service with a route connecting Paris with Brussels. On August 25, 1919 the first sustained scheduled daily international service started between London and Paris. This feat was accomplished by Britain's Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd. and set new standards of punctuality and regularity.
By the early 1920's the U.S. Post Office's domestic airmail operation had grown so large that new regulations were in order. The Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925 provided the legislation to transfer the carriage of mail to private contractors. Initially, 12 air-carrier companies were founded, and these companies formed the nuclei of the big airlines of this period. American, Eastern, United and Trans World Airlines (TWA) were the result of company mergers of the early 1930's. Domestically these airlines became known as the Big Four.
In the field of International air service Pan American Airways established it's dominance beginning in the 1930's. Pan American Airways success was linked to their use of "flying boats". Such vehicles were actually airplanes designed to take-off and land on large bodies of water. Pan American used these airplanes to start a trans-Pacific airmail service in 1935 followed by passenger service in 1936. By 1939 they had begun trans-Atlantic service for both passengers and mail. The 1930's were the heyday of the "flying boat" of which the Boeing 314 Clipper is most notable.
While the carriage of mail was the driving force in early commercial air transport, the area of passenger travel soon supplied most of the progress and development of commercial aviation. By 1945 the Douglas DC-7, the Lockheed Super Constellation and the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser could each carry about 100 passengers nonstop from New York City to Paris at speeds exceeding 300 miles per hour. Engineers in Great Britain produced the world's first large commercial jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet. In 1958 the Boeing 707 began passenger service between the United States and Europe. By 1960 the McDonnell Douglas DC-8 and the Convair 880 had begun passenger service as U.S. jet transports. The 1960's also saw world air traffic quadruple leading to the advent of wide-bodied jet airliners, popularly known as jumbo jets. The world's first commercial jumbo jet, the Boeing 747, began service in 1970 carrying more than 400 passengers. Newer versions of the Boeing 747 carry fewer passengers but can travel longer distances without refueling. Other notable jumbo jets of this period were the 270 seat Douglas DC-10, the Lockheed L 1011 trijets and the 240 seat European Airbus.
The business of commercial aviation has evolved over the years with the goal of offering better, safer, service at lower costs. Flying should be as easy and comfortable for passengers as possible. On board a commercial flight, stewards and stewardesses advise of the plane's safety features, serve meals and drinks and tend to the requests of passengers. There are lavatories and galleys (kitchens) for preparing hot meals on most planes. Passengers have the option of using headphones to listen to various music programs or to the soundtrack of a movie which is being displayed on color monitors throughout the plane. Recently public telephones have been added to the list of amenities offered on a standard commercial airplane flight. This recent addition symbolizes how commonplace airplanes are to the general public. Millions of people today depend on planes for quick, easy transportation. Businesses expect swift airmail service and many industries rely primarily on airlines to ship their products. Whether it be perishable goods that must be delivered quickly or important high-tech electronic equipment, commercial airplane's provide thousands of businesses safe, quick, reliable transport of merchandise every day.
This everyday commonality of commercial airplanes in millions of peoples lives has stemmed from an evolution of engineering improvements. The major engineering improvements in commercial aviation occurred during the 1930's. During this time engineers made it possible for planes to be bigger; fly faster, further and higher; and to carry heavier loads than ever before. Planes became greatly streamlined to cut through the air smoothly. As planes flew higher, pressurized cabins were designed to make breathing at 35,000 feet as easy as breathing at 6,000 feet. Controllable-pitch propellers were designed to allow pilots to set the propeller blades at the best angle for a particular air speed. Onboard radio equipment was greatly improved in the 1930's. Automatic pilots were created and made more accurate navigation possible and helped pilots avoid extreme tiredness on long flights. The biggest technological advance of all, however, may have been marked in 1933 by the Boeing 247. The 247 incorporated the qualities of all-metal construction, stressed-skin fuselage and wing surfaces, internal wing bracing, coweled radial engines and retractable landing gear. These improvements combined to increase cruising speed from 160 kilometers per hour to about 270 kilometers per hour (160 miles per hour). The increased speed reduced the U.S. transcontinental journey from two days to eighteen hours. The 247 had ten seats and was improved on in 1934 by the 14 seat Douglas DC-2. In 1936 the Douglas Sleeper Transport, the DC-3, set an even higher standard for all-around airplane efficiency.
Subsequent developments centered around the improvement of airplane engines and created what has become popularly known as the jet age. During the late 1940's airline engineers were working to improve on the crude jet engines built during World War II. This lead to the world's first large commercial jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet in 1952. While the Comet flew at nearly 500 miles per hour with little noise or vibration, disaster struck when two exploded in flight. One positive result of the Comet disasters were stronger bodies for all airliners. In April 1953 scheduled flights were begun from London to Tokyo using jet transportation. The flight distance was 10,200 miles with a flying time of 36 hours (compared with the 85 hours for the propeller-driven aircraft then in use on the same route). The next jet age development was Britain's Vickers Viscount, a transport plane with propellers driven by jet engines. These turboprop planes also began carrying passengers in 1953. Many of the world's small airlines use turboprops today. While slower than jets, they are quieter and cheaper to build and run. They are ideal for flying short and medium distances. The jet age also saw the emergence of jet engines used to power small planes. Small jets, such as the nine seat Cessna Citation III, are used chiefly for business purposes. They fly high, fast and smooth, are expensive to operate, but save willing clients valuable time.
While engineering has played a key role in commercial aviation development, the basic shape of a medium sized airliner has changed little in the past 30 years. Whether for cargo or passengers, the main body of an airplane is known as the fuselage. The fuselage is the familiar tube-shape and contains the lavatories, galley, cargo bay, seating for passengers and crew and the controls. Seating is typically first class up front with the tighter packed "economy class" behind taking up the bulk of the fuselage space. Carry on luggage space is located in overhead compartments while larger items are checked in and stored in a separate compartment in the bottom half of the fuselage commonly known as the "hold". The pilot and other crew sit on the flight deck at the front of the plane. The wings are located approximately in the middle of the fuselage and are angled backwards. Each wing typically supports one of the planes two engines. Other features of the plane are a passenger door, cargo door, nose wheel and landing gear for landing, and a hydraulic system. The hydraulic system pumps in the engines pressurized fluid which operates the flying control surfaces, cargo doors, landing gear and brakes. Often three separate hydraulic systems are used in case of failure.
Because serving the public is at the core of commercial aviation, safety is a top priority. Commercial airline engineers strive for the highest possible safety standards. There is little room for error when an airplane is flying hundreds of people through the sky at over 500 miles per hour. For that reason commercial airplanes must contain certain safety features which can help save lives. A plane must be capable of evacuating all it's passengers in 90 seconds with the use of emergency chutes. Each passenger must be provided a seat belt and an oxygen supply. If air leaks out of the fuselage and becomes to thin to breathe, oxygen masks automatically fall from the racks located above each seat. On flights over water, there must also be a life-jacket under every seat. Storage bins are used to safely store carry-on luggage and meal trays so that they are not thrown around during an emergency or rough flight. In addition to regular doors, emergency exit doors are provided. Such doors are located over the wings and at the back of the plane. Safety signs are also used to illuminate exits, and to tell passengers when they should be seated with their seat belts on. In addition to these features, the stewards and stewardesses are required to point out the airplanes safety features and procedures prior to each flight.
A final thought on commercial airplanes is that of the supersonic aircraft. Supersonic means faster than the speed of sound and planes that reach this speed are called "supersonics". The first supersonic transport airplane to fly was the Soviet's Tu-144. The first to carry fare-paying passengers, however, was the 1,450 mile per hour Concorde. The Concorde was built by Britain and France and went into service in 1976. It crosses the Atlantic ocean in less than half the time taken by other airliners, and holds the record for New York to London service with a time of just under 3 hours - a 3,480 mile flight.
Although the Concorde has marked a significant advance in commercial aviation technology and design, the Concorde is also an important example of the commercial aviation industry. The Concorde proved extremely expensive to operate and in it's first five years of service lost large amounts of money. Since this lesson commercial airline engineers have mostly abandoned the pursuit of speed. Instead, the new commercial airlines of today focus on fuel economy, quietness and automation. Greater safety, increased reliability, less noise and pollution, better passenger comfort, more navigational aids and less room for pilot error are all guidelines for the commercial airplanes of tomorrow. After all, commercial aviation is a business and shrewd economics coupled with customer satisfaction and safety determine the demand and ultimately the success of planes that will fly tomorrow's skies.
About 200 major airlines are engaged in worldwide intercity and intercontinental passenger and cargo operations throughout the world. These airlines carry more than 800 million passengers every year. To get an idea of the volume of traffic this represents think about one busy U.S. airport - Chicago International Airport at O'Hare field. This one airport has over half a million take-offs and landings every year. This represents an average of more than one a minute, twenty four hours a day, with serviced passengers numbering over 60 million per year. Furthermore, a single plane (The Boeing 747 jumbo jet) has carried as many as 610 passengers on a single flight. A Pan-Am Boeing 747 has also flown non-stop between San Francisco and Sydney Australia in under 14 hours on a scheduled weekly flight. Keep in mind this distance is nearly a third of the way around the world. Figures like this give a good idea of how far commercial airlines have come since the early days of Orville and Wilbur Wright. There is little doubt that commercial aviation is here to stay. Whether it be passengers, cargo or both commercial airplanes will undoubtedly play an important role throughout the world for many, many years to come.
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