History of flight from the year you were born

Written by:
February 16, 2019
Updated on July 7, 2020

History of flight from the year you were born

The dawn of American aviation dates back to 1903 with the ambitious Wright brothers taking flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. To chart the course of the industry since, Stacker compiled milestones from The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' History of Flight Timeline. The past century of flight has certainly been a wild ride of filled with soaring heights and dramatic turbulence: These historic moments include advancements in military planes, inventions that seemed at the time to have been plucked from the pages of sci-fi comics, record-setting achievements, and various flight disasters. In 2020 alone, we've seen the first pilotless air taxi take off in the United States and Boeing gearing up to cease production of its popular and otherwise enduring 747 amid budget cuts and layoffs.

Keep reading to brush up on your aviation history, learn about iconic events that shaped the world of flight over the last century, and see just how far flying has come.

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1919: The first nonstop transatlantic flight is completed

From June 14 to 15, 1919, all eyes were on the skies as British Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Albert Brown attempted and completed a flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. This marked the world’s first transatlantic flight, though many associate the feat with Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was the first to cross the Atlantic solo. Alcock and Brown completed the flight in a Vickers Vimy, a large aircraft developed for World War I, but not ready for use until after the war—thus, never seeing action over Europe.


1920: First transcontinental air mail service

In a world where Amazon can deliver anything your heart could desire within the same day, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when mail traveled by train across the country. That changed in 1920 when the first transcontinental air mail service delivered mail from San Francisco to New York on Feb. 22. The trip took 33 hours and 20 minutes, which was close to three days faster than mail service via rail.

1921: First African-American woman gets her pilot's license

When the flight schools in the United States denied Bessie Coleman entry because of her race and gender, she taught herself French and moved to France to study at Caudron Brothers School of Aviation. On June 15, 1921, Bessie became the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license, making her a pioneer in the field of aviation.

1922: Parachute jump record is broken

On June 12, 1922, Capt. Albert Williams Stevens of the United States Army Air Service parachuted 24,200 feet out of a bomber. It was a record-breaking altitude, almost five vertical miles, with Capt. Stevens landing 25 miles from where his jump began. He reportedly suffered from motion sickness during the jump, and dislocated his toes on the landing. One has to imagine it was all worth it for the nickname "Stratosphere Stevens.”

1923: First successful in-flight refueling

The year 1923 was a big one for Lt. Lowell Smith and Lt. John Richter. On June 27, they completed the first in-flight refueling while flying over Rockwell Field. The breakthrough allowed U.S. Army Corps lieutenants to then set an endurance record of 37 hours on Aug. 23.

1924: First circumnavigation of the globe by air

It took 175 days and 74 stops, but on Sept. 28, 1924, two airplanes touched back down in Seattle, completing the first round-the-world flight. The feat had begun the previous April with four planes and eight U.S. Army Air Service pilots, but the journey was completed by only two of the planes and four of the pilots.

1925: 'Recording compass' transcribes airplane's headings

In 1925, the U.S. Army Air Service began using the "recording compass,” which was a device that could record the headings that an airplane would fly. The military intention behind the recording compass was to aid a pilot in reaching a destination to be bombed, and to help pilots navigate their return trips.

1926: First flight over the North Pole and planes falling from the sky...on purpose

Floyd Bennett had a good 1926: On May 9, he piloted the first successful flight over the North Pole. He would later have a good 1931, when an airport in Brooklyn was named after him. Another 1926 milestone was the dropping of a training plane via parachute at San Diego Naval Air Station—the first time this had been done successfully.

1927: Year of Lindy

Even beyond aviation history, 1927 holds a special place in U.S. history as it was the year that Charles Lindbergh manned the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Flying the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh departed Long Island on May 20 and landed in Paris 33 hours and 30 minutes later. This flight changed the course of history.

1928: Amelia Earhart crosses the Atlantic

Although not exactly the feat that it seems, Amelia Earhart gained widespread fame in 1928 for being the first woman to cross the Atlantic. To clarify, Earhart was a passenger on the flight that was piloted by Wilmer Stultz and Lou Gordon. Earhart had been promised some time to pilot the plane, but that never ended up happening during the flight, and she would later say she felt like a "sack of potatoes.”

1929: Graf Zeppelin breaks multiple records

1929 was a year in which one dirigible broke three records. At William Randolph Hearst’s behest, Ferdinand von Zeppelin (the inventor of dirigibles) piloted the first circumnavigation of the globe in a dirigible airship, the Graf Zeppelin. The trip was broken into four legs, and Hearst’s guests aboard included Lady Grace Drummond Hay, making her the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. One of the legs of the trip was flying from Tokyo to California, which made the Graf Zeppelin the first aircraft of any type to fly nonstop across the Pacific.

1930: First east-west transatlantic flight is completed

French pilot Dieudonné Coste and French navigator Maurice Bellonte reversed Lindbergh’s famous route and took off on Sept. 1, 1930, from France, heading for New York. When they touched down in Long Island, they were greeted as heroes as they had just completed the first east-to-west transatlantic flight.

1931: Around the world in eight days

Though there had been circumnavigation of the globe prior to 1931, this year brought a new record with the help of the Lockheed 5C Vega plane, the Winnie Mae of Oklahoma. Piloted by Wiley Post and navigated by Harold Gatty, the duo took the plane around the world in eight days, which was the fastest circumnavigation to date.

1932: Amelia Earhart makes history twice

It was five years to the day that Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis. No pilot had since been able to replicate his feat. Enter Amelia Earhart, who had already made history in 1928 as the first female passenger on a transatlantic flight. In 1932 she would pilot a Lockheed Vega airplane from Newfoundland to Ireland in 15 hours, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and the first pilot to do so after Lindbergh. Later in 1932, Earhart would also be the first woman to pilot a solo nonstop flight across the United States.

1933: First solo flight around the world

Wiley Post and his plane the Winnie Mae were not done making history in 1931. On July 22, 1933, Post became be the first pilot to fly solo around the globe. Not only was this the first flight, but he and The Winnie Mae did it the fastest by completing the journey in seven days, breaking the previous 1931 record of eight days. The flight was more than just record-breaking, though: It also marked the dawn of aviation technologies like autopilot and radio direction finder.


1934: Air Mail scandal and subsequent Air Mail Act of 1934

As monopolies go, one might not guess that there is much to be gained in the world of Air Mail. However, when Postmaster General Walter Brown was doling out Air Mail contracts in 1930, he seemed to be favoring three big airlines. In February 1934, the scandal was put to rest with President Franklin D. Roosevelt returning Air Mail service to the Army Air Corps. Unfortunately the Air Corps did not have the necessary means and equipment for the job, and multiple deaths and accidents led to the Air Mail Act of 1934, making multiple departments responsible for assigning Air Mail contracts.

1935: DC-3 first flight and more Earhart records

The Douglas DC-3 plane, considered the first successful passenger airliner, took off in 1935 from Santa Monica, Calif. Also of note in 1935, Amelia Earhart became the first pilot to fly solo from Hawaii to the continental U.S., as well as the first pilot to fly the south-north route between Mexico City and New Jersey nonstop.

1936: Lockheed builds the first pressurized cabin

Though the aircraft wouldn’t take its maiden flight until the following year, 1936 saw the construction of the first pressurized cabin. The contract to build the aircraft went to Lockheed Corporation in 1936, who would then deliver the XC-35. Cabin pressurization was pivotal in flight, as it meant that pilots (and passengers) could fly above 15,000 without oxygen masks or suits.

1937: "Oh, the humanity!"

As the world was creeping closer to a second World War, 1937 was likewise an ominous year in air travel. In May, the Nazi German dirigible the Hindenburg burst into flames as it was completing its journey from Frankfurt to New Jersey. The largest blimp of its kind, the Hindenburg plummeted 200 feet to the ground as nearby radio announcer Herb Morrison cried out "Oh, the humanity!” 1937 was also the tragic year that Amelia Earhart disappeared while attempting to fly across the world.


1938: Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938

President Franklin Roosevelt was not yet occupied with a deadly war in 1938. It was then that he signed the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 into existence. The act transferred non-military aviation responsibilities to a new, independent federal agency. The Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) was such given such roles as regulating fares and determining specific routes for individual carriers.

1939: First jet-powered airplane takes flight

On Aug. 27, 1939, the Heinkel He 178, the first jet-powered airplane, took flight from Rostock, Germany. Produced in Nazi Germany by the Heinkel company and engineered by Dr. Hans Pabst von Ohain, the maiden voyage of the He 178 ended abruptly with a bird causing the engine to flame out. A week later to the date, World War II began.


1940: First pressurized cabin in a commercial airliner

The Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner was the first commercial airliner to feature a pressurized cabin. In 1940, Stratoliners started routes to Latin American and between New York and Los Angeles. Being able to fly above inclement weather at 20,000 feet was a game-changer for the aviation industry.

1941: Tuskegee Airmen unit is formed

With World War II looming for the United States, the decision was made to train African-American fighter pilots and mechanics. In 1941, a new base in Tuskegee, Ala., became the training center of the effort. The pilots and air personnel, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, would go on to fight in various theaters of World War II.

1942: First U.S. air engagement in World War II

Just a few short months after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise made a move on the Marshall Islands on Feb. 1, 1942. The Enterprise’s aircraft sank three Japanese ships, damaged another eight, and destroyed various enemy aircraft.


1943: First U.S. President to fly in wartime

In 1943, President Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to board a plane and fly in wartime. He boarded a commercial airline and flew to Casablanca, Morocco, to have a strategy meeting with Winston Churchill.

1944: D-Day

On the morning of June 6, 1944, Allied forces stormed the beach at Normandy by sea and sky in an operation that would become D-Day. The largest aerial military operation in history, more than 13,000 Allied aircraft participated in D-Day, both in bombing enemies from above and in dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines.

1945: Enola Gay drops the first atomic bomb

The Enola Gay was a Boeing B-29 bomber that would become the most famous plane in the world, flown on Aug. 6, 1945, to carry and drop the first-ever atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The atomic bomb killed 80,000 people immediately and wiped out 90% of the city’s infrastructure. On Aug. 9, a second B-29 bomber would drop another atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, killing 40,000 people that day. Japan would surrender six days later on Aug. 15, 1945.


1946: Radio-flown airplanes and air museum established

In August 1946, well before self-driving cars, two empty B-17 bombers were flown nonstop from Hawaii to California controlled entirely by radio. Also of note that same month, President Harry Truman allocated $50,000 to begin the National Air Museum in the Smithsonian Institute.

1947: Faster than the speed of sound

On Oct. 14, 1947 a secret project was underway in California with a B-29 bomber climbing to an altitude of 25,000 feet. The bomber opened the bomb bay and launched Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager in an X-1 rocket plane. Yeager would climb to 40,000 feet and break the sound barrier for the first time ever. Traveling faster than the speed of sound was likely child’s play for this World War II veteran, who had flown 64 missions over Europe in the war and been shot down over France.


1948: Death of flight pioneer and the Berlin Airlift

On Jan. 30, 1948, the world lost flight pioneer Orville Wright to a heart attack. Later in the year on June 24, a crisis began in Berlin as Soviet forces blockaded access to supplies from Allied-occupied Berlin. So began the "Berlin Airlift,” during which the United States and United Kingdom began airlifting in supplies to their forces in Berlin.


1949: Lucky Lady, indeed

On March 2, 1949, a Boeing B-50A Superfortress plane nicknamed Lucky Lady II landed after completing the first nonstop round-the-world flight. Piloted by Air Force Capt. James Gallagher, the plane refueled mid-air four times and completed its trek around the globe in 94 uninterrupted hours.

1950: Automatic pilot for helicopter

In August 1950, the U.S. Navy began testing an automatic pilot feature in helicopters. The initial test took place in Mustin Field in Pennsylvania, and later that September a helicopter successfully flew using only the automatic pilot.


1951: First helicopter flight with a gas turbine engine

Prior to 1951, helicopters were powered by reciprocating engines. The Kaman K-225 changed all that, and in 1951 became the first helicopter to fly with a gas turbine engine. It was fitted with a Boeing-502 engine, and forever changed how helicopters would fly.

1952: Two monkeys and two mice make it to space and back

After two failed U.S. attempts in 1951 to launch animal-occupied rockets and return them safely to Earth, the Aerobee-26 rocket launched on May 21, 1952 from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The passengers—two monkeys and two mice—made it to space and back with no problems. This successful launch paved the way for further space travel, and proved that living beings could survive such a launch with U.S. technology.


1953: Mach 2 is achieved

Albert Scott Crossfield was a flight instructor for the Navy in World War II, and spent countless hours in the air, though he never saw battle. After the war, he became a test pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. On Nov. 20, 1953 Crossfield became the first person to achieve Mach 2; flying twice as fast as the speed of sound.


1954: Boeing 707 makes its first test flight

The age of passenger jet travel was near, and 1954 sealed the deal. On July 15, the Boeing 707 took its first test flight from Renton Field, south of Seattle, and the rest is history. Even though Boeing was not the first to create a passenger jet, it was the 707 that has been credited with popularizing passenger jet travel.

1955: First United States Air Force Academy class

Even though the location was temporary, on July 11, 1955, the first class of the United States Air Force Academy was sworn in at Lowry Air Force base in Denver, Colorado. The original class consisted of 306 cadets, and the academy itself would ultimately be located in Colorado Springs.

1956: One of the worst commercial airline accidents

On June 30, 1956, two aircraft collided over the Grand Canyon after one of the aircraft had asked permission to fly above turbulence and the second plane had not been notified of the change. Everyone onboard each plane was killed, but some good did ultimately come out of it: See 1958 to find out what that positive take-away was.  

1957: Year of Sputnik

The beginning of the space age was ushered in with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first orbiting satellite, on Oct. 4, 1957. Sputnik 1 was the size of a beach ball, and on Nov. 3, 1957, a larger satellite was launched; Sputnik 2. The second Sputnik contained a dog named Laika, who became the first living being in Earth’s orbit. Sadly, Laika also became the first living being to die in Earth’s orbit; Laika passed within hours after the start of the mission.


1958: FAA is created

After the collision disaster over the Grand Canyon (see 1956), the country found itself faced with an aeronautical wake-up call. On May 21, 1958, Senator A.S. "Mike” Monroney of Oklahoma submitted a bill to create an independent Federal Aviation Agency to control the national airspace. The Federal Aviation Act was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, and the FAA was born.

1959: The day the music died

Don Mclean's epic song "American Pie” centers around a 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the "Big Bopper" J.P. Richardson along with pilot Richard Peterson. Holly chartered a plane on Feb. 3 from Clear Lake, Idaho, to take him to Fargo, North Dakota; the plane crashed minutes after take-off, killing all four on board.

1960: Francis Gary Powers is captured

In lieu of an "open skies” policy over the Soviet Union, the United States had come to rely on spy missions with high flying U-2 planes. On May 1, 1960, one such plane was shot down over Soviet airspace, and CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured. He was sentenced to three years in a Soviet prison after President Eisenhower refused to apologize for spying.

1961: First humans in space

On April 12, 1961, space got its first look at humans. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, orbiting Earth on the Vostok 1. Less than a month later on May 5, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Shepard traveled to infinity and beyond in the Freedom 7 capsule on a 15-minute suborbital flight.

1962: First aircraft combat fatalities in Vietnam

Though the conflict in Vietnam had already been brewing and still had many years of combat ahead, 1962 saw the first U.S. helicopter shot down in Vietnam. An H-21C Shawnee transport helicopter, sometimes known as a "flying banana,” was shot down by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Three soldiers were killed.

1963: First woman in space

Russia beat the United States by 20 years when it came to sending a woman to space. On July 16, 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space. She piloted the Vostok 6 and orbited Earth 48 times.

1964: Year of the flying woman

After 29 days, 11 hours, and 59 minutes, Geraldine "Jerrie” Mock became the first female pilot to fly around the world when she touched down in Ohio on April 17, 1964. Within the same year, another woman became the fastest female pilot in the world. Jackie Cochran set the standing land speed record for women in a F104G-Super Star jet.

1965: Operation Rolling Thunder begins

The Johnson administration switched strategy courses in the Vietnam War and began an all-out aerial strike on the Viet Cong. "Operation Rolling Thunder” began on March 2, 1965, and was meant to encourage North Vietnamese leaders to end the conflict against South Vietnam, cut off transport capabilities of North Vietnam, and act as a morale booster for South Vietnam.

1966: World’s first 'jumbo jet' announced

Though it would be three years before one would actually hit the sky, the Boeing 747 was announced in April 1966. The first-ever “jumbo jet,” the 747 was as tall as a six-story building, had two floors and 490 seats, and was the largest civilian jet in the world.

1967: First Boeing 737 takes flight

Nicknamed "Baby Boeing” in comparison to the company’s other models, the Boeing 737 was a commercial twinjet that was christened on Jan. 17, 1967. Certainly no baby, the 737 was as long as it was wide, and had seating for six across instead of five. Thanks to new technology, the flight engineer was no longer a necessary position and the two-seat flight deck of the 737 became an industry standard.

1968: Tower Bridge of London gets a fly-through

In 1968, Royal Air Force pilot Alan Pollock took protesting to a new level—or rather, a new altitude. In protest of the sitting government in the U.K. and lack of a celebration and flypast for the 50th anniversary of the Royal Air Force, Pollock took things into his own hands and flew his plane low throughout the city. After flying around Parliament and trying to find 10 Downing Street, he flew through the Tower Bridge, a sight that was captured on film. He was, somewhat predictably, court marshalled upon landing.

1969: One small step for man...

Apollo 11 blasted off on its historic journey on July 16, 1969. Four days later, as the world watched by television, astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon, followed closely by astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The Apollo 11 command module can still be viewed today in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

1970: 747 is introduced into service

Pan American World Airways was the first airline to introduce the Boeing 747 jumbo jet into service. On Jan. 22, 1970, service between New York and London began on the airline using the world’s largest commercial jet, the 747. Pan Am placed an order for 25 of the jets when they were first unveiled years earlier: a record breaking order at the time.

1971: D.B. Cooper gets away

On Nov. 24, 1971, one of the strangest plane hijackings in history took place on a Northwest Orient flight from Seattle to Portland. A man who went by D.B. Cooper on his one-way ticket hijacked the aircraft before take-off, demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. Once he had secured the money and parachutes, he demanded the plane take off, then parachuted out the back stairs of the plane, never to be seen again. It is the only unsolved case of air piracy in history.


1972: Last Apollo mission

Apollo 17 was the first mission to carry a trained geologist to the moon, and the last mission to ever go to the moon. The Apollo 17 mission made Eugene Cernan the last man to ever walk on the moon. No one has been back since Dec. 14, 1972.

1973: Flight of the Concorde

The Concorde was the first supersonic passenger jet, boasting travel faster than Mach 2. Beyond setting speed records, it was also the first time European countries worked cooperatively to build an aircraft; four companies from France and Great Britain collaborated on the jet. On Sept. 26, 1973, the Concorde made its first transatlantic crossing.

1974: First woman Army aviator

Col. Sally D. Murphy became the Army’s first aviator when she graduated from the Army Aviation School on June 4, 1974. She was both the first female helicopter pilot and fixed-wing pilot.

1975: Plane hijackers are executed

Plane hijackings spiked in the early 1970s, and on March 1, three Iraqi men added to the statistic by hijacking an Iraqi plane and demanding it land in Iran. One of the hijackers died during the event, but the other two were captured in Tehran upon landing. On April 8, 1975 these two men would become the first plane hijackers to ever be sentenced to death.


1976: Concorde begins its passenger service

Air France and British Airways began their regular passenger service on the supersonic Concorde in 1976. It had been three years since the Concorde’s transatlantic crossing (see: 1973), and the time had finally come for paying customers to step aboard. The initial flight paths were from London to Bahrain and Paris to Rio de Janeiro.

1977: First Minimum Safe Altitude Warning System (MSAW)

Though the Minimum Safe Altitude Warning System had been introduced the previous year, it wasn’t until Oct. 28, 1977, that it was widespread at 63 major airports. The MSAW measured a plane’s altitude against terrain maps stored in the plane’s computer. MSAW: Never fly home without it.

1978: Korean Air flight shot down over Soviet Union

A navigational error on Korean Air flight 902 ended up costing the plane its left wing and two passengers their lives. On April 20, 1978, the Boeing 707 drifted into Soviet Airspace when attempting to land in Anchorage. A Soviet fighter jet shot two missiles at the plane, which damaged the left wing and punctured the fuselage, killing two passengers. The pilot ended up landing on a frozen lake where the survivors were rescued… by the Soviets.

1979: Gossamer Albatross crosses the English Channel

In the midst of an era of aviation technology advancements, 1979 saw an aviation record set having nothing to do with navigation or speed. June 12 was the first crossing of the English Channel by a human-powered aircraft: the Gossamer Albatross. Cue the joke, "I just flew in … my legs are tired.”

1980: First women graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy

After President Gerald Ford signed legislation in 1975 allowing women to enter the military, the United States Air Force Academy admitted its first cadet class with women in 1976. Four years later in 1980, they would become the first female graduates of the Academy. Included in this graduating class was Lt. Michelle Johnson, who would become the Academy’s first female superintendent.

1981: First flight of a space shuttle

On April 12, 1981, NASA launched a test ride of the world’s first space shuttle, the Space Shuttle Columbia. Space shuttles revolutionized space travel, as they were the world’s first reusable spacecraft. The shuttles were launched into space by boosters, orbited in space, and then returned to Earth, landing like planes.

1982: A brutal January

1982 had just begun when two freak commercial airline accidents ended in bodies of water. On Jan. 13, Air Florida Flight 90 took off in Washington D.C., failed to maintain altitude, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, and ultimately ended up in the Potomac where all but five on board would perish. Just 10 days later on Jan. 23, World Airways flight 30 overran the runway landing at Boston’s Logan airport, ending up in Boston Harbor. Two passengers were never found.

1983: Sally Ride takes a historic ride

Though she wasn’t the first woman in space (see: 1963), Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on June 18, 1963. Aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, Ride was the flight engineer and one of four other astronauts. Beyond breaking the gender barrier in the American space program, Sally Ride also became the youngest American in space

1984: First all-female commercial airline crew

Frontier Airlines was on the frontier of women flight crews. On June 16, 1984, pilot Emily Warner and co-pilot Barbara Cook became the first all-female flight crew in United States history. The aviators flew the Frontier Airlines Boeing 737 from Denver, Colorado, to Lexington, Kentucky.

1985: Deadliest month in commercial airline history

August of 1985 remains the deadliest month in commercial airline history, with 720 people losing their lives in different disasters. Four plane crashes contribute to this statistic, the largest being a Japan Airlines flight that killed 520 people.

1986: Challenger disaster

The United States had seen aviation tragedy unfold on live television before, but no one could have prepared for Jan. 28, 1986. The country watched as the Challenger space shuttle embarked on a mission with seven on board, and exploded 73 seconds later, killing everyone. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, was one of the seven lost, and had been set to be the first civilian in space.

1987: Mathias Rust lands a plane in Red Square

On May 28, 1989, a small Cessna plane circled Red Square and came to a landing near the Kremlin. The pilot was 19-year-old Mathias Rust, a West German who had flown the plane from Helsinki in an attempt to create an "imaginary bridge” between the West and the Soviet bloc. The stunt’s repercussions? An 18-month jail sentence for Rust, and the immediate firing of Soviet officials seen responsible for the event.


1988: Lockerbie bombing

There were 259 passengers and crew members on Pan Am flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988. While the 747 was flying over Lockerbie, Scotland, a timer-activated bomb placed inside a cassette player in luggage was detonated. The plane exploded in the air, raining debris down on Lockerbie. All on board were killed, as well as 11 people on the ground.

1989: "Undetected inbound, unscathed outbound"

Stealth technology, or the ability to be undetected by radar, had gone through many permutations by 1989. On July 16, 1989, the latest iteration, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, took its first flight. The B-2 Spirit line of stealth bombers is still in use today.

1990: Lockheed SR-71A "Blackbird" is retired

It was March 6, 1990, and the Lockheed SR71A Blackbird was due in Washington D.C. to be retired in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The Blackbird made its swan song flight from Los Angeles to D.C. in one hour, four minutes, and 20 seconds, setting a new speed record.


1991: First woman to become U.S. National Aerobatic Champion

Yes, even in the 1990s there were still "firsts” to be achieved for women in the aviation world. In 1991, Patty Wagstaff became the first woman to become the U.S. National Aerobatic Champion. She flew the Extra 260 plane and won the title again in 1992 and 1993.

1992: First flight of Space Shuttle Endeavor

In May of 1992, the Space Shuttle Endeavor took its maiden voyage. The mission involved the first-ever three-person space walk to retrieve a private satellite for repair. The Endeavor would go on to make a historic final voyage across the United States 20 years later (see 2012).

1993: Black Hawk down

U.S. troops stationed in Somalia were sent on what was presumed to be a quick raid to arrest two top lieutenants of a Somali warlord. Troops in the Oct. 3, 1993, raid were hit with unrelenting ground fire and two Black Hawk helicopters were brought down by rocket-propelled grenades. The Battle of Mogadishu, also known as Black Hawk Down, lasted 15 hours and had the largest combat death toll of U.S. troops since the Vietnam War.

1994: Maj. Jackie Parker receives Ground Breaker Award

By 1994, Jackie Parker was accustomed to being first. She was the first woman to attend U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, the first Air National Guard woman in F-16 training, the first woman to be assigned to an F-16 fighter pilot squadron, and the first woman to be a F-16 test pilot. In June of 1994, she was awarded the Ground Breaker Award for these achievements and others.

1995: Boeing 777 begins service

United Airlines was the first airline to order the Boeing 777, and in June of 1995, began its service with the large twin-jet. Of note, the 777 was the first airliner to be 100% designed digitally, and the first airliner to enter service with the FAA-granted 180-minute ETOPS clearance.

1996: TWA Flight 800

Still considered one of the world’s greatest aviation mysteries, TWA flight 800 took off from JFK airport in New York on July 17, 1996, only to explode mid-air 12 minutes later over water near Long Island. All 230 people on board died, and a massive investigation began. Though the investigation would ultimately rule out terrorism, there has never been a conclusive answer to what could have caused a spark in the fuel tank that supposedly resulted in the explosion.

1997: John Denver dies while piloting a plane

"Rocky Mountain High” singer John Denver was piloting an experimental Rutan-Long EZ plane when he crashed into Monterey Bay on Oct. 12, 1997. The NTSB later determined the cause of the crash was the poor location of the fuel selector handle, which diverted Denver’s attention.

1998: Second-hand smoke on a flight results in death

Though it had been eight years since the U.S banned smoking on most domestic flights, 1998 was still two years prior to the U.S. smoking ban on international flights. On Jan. 4, 1998, a passenger with severe reactions to cigarette smoke passed away due to exposure on Olympic Airways flight 417 from Greece to New York.

1999: Another Kennedy tragedy

On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. was piloting a single-engine Piper Saratoga with his wife and sister-in-law on board when the plane crashed into the Atlantic near Martha’s Vineyard. The cause of the crash is believed to be Kennedy’s inexperience as a pilot and poor visibility causing him to become disoriented and lose control of the aircraft.

2000: Concorde tragedy

The world’s first supersonic passenger jet burst into flames on take off from Paris on July 25, 2000. The accident was caused by a piece of debris rupturing a tire, which then punctured the Concorde’s fuel tank. All 109 on board were killed, as well as four people on the ground. The Concorde would never quite recover from the publicity of the accident.

2001: Birth of the TSA

Two months after the worst foreign attack on American soil, President George W. Bush signed into law the Aviation and Transportation Security Act on Nov. 19, 2001. This act federalized airport security and created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Flying commercially would never be the same after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent overhaul in airport security.

2002: First woman to fly in combat for the Marine Corps

Lt. Col. Amy McGrath was deployed as part of a squadron to Afghanistan in 2002. After the first few missions, McGrath recalls being informed that she was the first woman to fly in combat for the Marine Corps.

2003: Concorde sets a record, but it still retired

The supersonic plane the Concorde was ultimately retired on Oct. 24, 2003. After having never really recovered from the public backlash to the crash in 2000, as well as high maintenance costs, keeping the plane flying was no longer an option. Yet the Concorde went out on a high note. Just 10 days prior to retirement on Oct. 14, 2003, the Concorde broke its own transatlantic speed record and reached Boston from London in three hours, five minutes, and 34 seconds.

2004: First unmanned aerial vehicle missile strikes Pakistan

June 19, 2004 was the first-known unmanned aerial vehicle missile strike inside Pakistan. Commonly referred to as drones, the unmanned aerial vehicle used in this attack was a General Atomics MQ-1 "Predator.” The drone fired a missile into a compound, killing a Taliban operative, and ultimately began the U.S. covert drone war.


2005: Airbus 380 takes its maiden flight, the Boeing 757 takes a bow

The Airbus 380 is the world’s largest commercial airliner by capacity, with enough room for 525 passengers in a three-class configuration or 853 passengers in an all-economy configuration. The maiden voyage of this jumbo jet took place on April 27, 2005. Later in the year, on Nov. 28, Boeing delivered its last 757 after 23 years of production.

2006: First zero-gravity surgery

On Sept. 27, 2006, the European Space Agency backed a trial surgery to remove a benign tumor on a volunteer in space-like conditions as a predictor of the future of surgeries at the International Space Station. A modified Airbus 300 flew in parabolic swoops to create 20 seconds of weightlessness while the surgeons operated. The swoops were repeated 32 times, and the surgery was considered a success.


2007: Virgin America begins service

On Aug. 8, 2007, Richard Branson’s start-up airline, Virgin America, took its first flight. The airline’s goal was to "make flying fun again.” The unintended consequence of the airline’s launch was the impact it had on the industry’s pre-flight safety videos.


2008: Peggy Whitson is the spaciest

When astronaut Peggy A. Whitson returned to Earth in 2008 after acting as Station Commander for Expedition 16, she had spent 377 days in space between two missions—a record at the time for women. She currently holds the U.S. record for most days spent in space: 665 days over her total career.

2009: Miracle on the Hudson

Anyone around on Jan. 15, 2009, probably remembers the live news feed of a commercial airliner in the middle of the Hudson River with passengers standing on each wing. Capt. Chesley "Sully” Sullenberger made the emergency landing of the U.S. Airways jet after a bird strike took out both of the plane’s engines. Sully was hailed as a hero: Not a single life was lost in the "Miracle on the Hudson.”

2010: "The Barefoot Bandit" goes to the Bahamas

A troubled teen, known as "The Barefoot Bandit” for carrying out various crimes while not wearing shoes, stole a Cessna 400 from an Indiana airport on July 4, 2010. Having taught himself to fly by studying manuals, he piloted the plane to the Bahamas, where he crash landed and proceeded to elude authorities for a week before being taken into custody.

2011: Osama Bin Laden raid

In the early hours of May 2, 2011, two MH-X stealth Black Hawk helicopters delivered 23 Navy SEALS into a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In what would be the final moments of Osama Bin Laden’s life, one of the first things to happen in the raid was a crash-landing of one of the Black Hawks. Due to the damage and the secrecy of the helicopter at that time, one of the SEALS set off explosives to destroy it.

2012: A 747 flies the Space Shuttle Endeavor home

Just when it seemed that the 747 could not possibly get any more impressive, an entire space shuttle was attached to one. The Space Shuttle Endeavor rode securely fastened to the top of 747 on a three-day journey from Florida to California. Touching down in Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 2012, it then completed a four-hour fly-over of California specifically highlighting certain landmarks such as NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Disneyland.


2013: American Airlines merger

In an $11 billion deal, American Airlines and U.S. Airways merged on Dec. 9, 2013. The merger made American Airlines the largest commercial airline in the world. This merger was the final merger over the course of 12 years that consolidated 10 U.S. airlines to four.

2014: Malaysia Airline flight 370 disappears

A Boeing 777 en route to China from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014, with 239 passengers on board disappeared from radar. The cause of the Malaysia Airlines crash, as well as the exact location of the crash over the Indian Ocean, remains a mystery. The wreckage has never been found.

2015: Falcon 9 lands successfully

Elon Musk typically makes news for reasons that vary on the spectrum of positivity. The Tesla and Space-X founder made the news for an unquestionably good reason, however, on Dec. 21, 2015 when the company’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed. It was the first time in history that an orbital booster was brought back intact, and the first time in history a rocket was landed in an orbital launch.


2016: Air Force pilot shortage

In an official hearing on Capitol Hill on March 16, 2016, Gen. Herbert Carlisle announced a shortage of fighter and drone pilots in the U.S. Air Force. Carlisle stated that 511 more fighter pilots and almost 300 more drone pilots would become necessary in order to maintain the current Air Force engagements. The expanding drone program was especially short on pilots, a fact that is interesting when considering that it the program had only begun 12 years prior (see: 2004).

2017: Safest year in aviation history

One might hope that every year air travel would get safer, but that trend stopped after 2017. It was by far the safest year in aviation history, with only 10 fatal commercial accidents causing 44 deaths, none of which were on passenger jets. The following year would see 15 fatal accidents and 556 deaths.

2018: Singapore Airlines completes world's longest nonstop flight in service

Singapore Airlines in October 2018 restarted its nonstop service between Singapore and New York; a flight that took 17 hours and 25 minutes to get from Changi Airport to Newark International Airport. The airline had stopped utilizing the nonstop route in 2013 because of costs.

2019: Electric commercial plane takes test flight

Harbour Air and MagniX successfully completed a test flight for a 100% electric, six-seat seaplane that was held at Harbour Air Seaplanes terminal near Vancouver, Canada. The test flight lasted for almost 10 minutes.


2020: First pilotless air taxi

An all-electric, two-seater, pilotless "air taxi" took off on a test flight in January 2020 near Raleigh, North Carolina. The plane was designed by Chinese unmanned aerial vehicle manufacturer Ehang; the flight marks the first time Ehang received permission from the FAA to fly.

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