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.
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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.”
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