Just as the Wright flyer was the precursor to today’s fast, sleek aircraft and the spindly biplane’s water-cooled, four-cyclinder engine was the forerunner of current multithousand-pound thrust jet engines, so too was the instrument grouping that Orville Wright used during the first flight of a heavier-than-air machine the ancestor of today’s sophisticated avionics. Having only a stop watch, distance (air) meter, anemometer (for measuring wind velocity), and prop revolution counter available for that historic flight on Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright could not have envisioned, nor even comprehended, current microprocessors and integrated digital electronics.
Nevertheless, the avionics industry would be remiss if it failed to pay tribute to the two self-acknowledged "tinkerers," who took time from their bicycle repair business to build the world’s first successful airplane. With Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside the aircraft to steady the right wing, the Wright Flyer was able to stay aloft seconds and span 120 feet (36.5 meters) over the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, N.C. It was a modest beginning but one rightfully recognized as launching the multibillion-dollar, civil and defense aviation industry.
Aviation’s progress over the past 100 years has been impressive in many ways, particularly in "avionics"–a term reportedly created some 50 years ago by combining "aviation" and "electronics." Appropriately, we look back at some of the avionics highlights during aviation’s century-long history.
For example, only three years after the Wright Brothers’ celebrated flight, Lee de Forrest invented the three-element vacuum tube. Radio communications began in about 1910, when wireless telegraphy was used as a ground-to-air link. By the 1920s it was found that an airborne receiver could home on radio signals from ground transmitters, thus giving birth to radio navigation.
Among the many other innovations in avionics and instrumentation over the years, the following represent a sample:
Elmer Sperry demonstrated gyrostablization in 1914 and went on to pioneer the electromechancial autopilot.
By World War I the airspeed indicator was developed to help prevent stalling.
Landing aids entered the scene when Jimmy Doolittle made the first totally blind takeoff and landing using radio and gyroscopically driven instruments in 1929.
Some 10 years later, the instrument landing system (ILS) was developed. It entered civil operations in the 1950s.
The first extensive use of VHF in aviation reportedly was for identification friend or foe (IFF) during the Battle of Britain.
The VHF omnidirectional radio range (VOR) system was developed in 1943. Loran began at roughly the same time, for marine navigation.
Because of gauge, dial and switch overload, avionics manufacturers began developing solid state instruments and the electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) in the 1960s.
In 1987, fly-by-wire was introduced in commercial flight, in the Airbus A320.
Avionics provides a colorful chapter in aviation history. I gained this historical data from the July 2003 issue of the AES Systems Magazine, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Interestingly, the Curtis-Wright Corp.,which has a lineage reaching back to the first flight at Kitty Hawk, brought the publication to my attention. It is fascinating reading.
Events in 2003 could well represent a crossroads for aviation. In addition to being the centennial anniversary of flight, 2003 is the year the Concorde was grounded. Few aircraft better represent aviation’s quest over the past century: to produce sleek, powerful aircraft that fly ever faster.
What appears on the horizon is very different. Digital technology, miniaturization, high-speed processing and wideband communications are changing the course of Orville’s and Wilbur’s aftermath from faster and bigger to more efficient and more capable. Examples include Boeing’s proposed 7E7 Dreamliner (expected to achieve 15 to 20 percent fuel savings), the military’s growing reliance on unmanned air vehicles, the quest for a Free Flight environment, and new general aviation aircraft meant to make flying easier and safer.
The Concorde’s grounding marks the end of an era, and aviation is entering a new era. However, it all is solidly rooted in the innovation of two brothers at Kitty Hawk a century ago.