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The Day That Created the Aviation Industry

By Alex Planes - Dec 17, 2013 at 3:15PM

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Two legendary first flights took off on Dec. 17, helping to launch the aviation industry as we know it.

On this day in business and aviation history...

Two of the most important first flights in aviation history took place on Dec. 17, with the latter paying tribute to the former by the date its test pilots chose for takeoff. On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first successful powered heavier-than-air human flight in history. Exactly 32 years later, the Douglas DC-3, one the most important pre-jet aircraft ever built, took off into the history books.

The legend of Kitty Hawk
The Wrights had been interested in flight for years before their first successful effort. Early efforts at powered flight, particularly three notable (but ultimately failed) attempts by other aviation pioneers in 1896, sparked the brothers' interest, and they began their own aeronautics experiments in 1899. Their great breakthrough -- which was so essential to successful powered fixed-wing flight that it remains the standard to this day -- was to devise three-axis flight controls. Earlier builders had believed that flight was little more than elevated locomotion, and ignored the possibility of side-to-side tilting movements (or roll, in flight dynamics parlance) in their designs.

The Wrights began experimenting with gliders at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1900, and continued experiments until 1902. In 1903, the brothers built the Wright Flyer 1, their first powered aircraft, using a 12-horsepower engine that produced a maximum speed of 30 mph. On Dec. 14, they attempted to fly, but a minor mistake botched the effort and damaged the aircraft. After repairs, the Wrights tried again on Dec. 17, making four brief but successful low-altitude flights, remaining aloft for a full minute and traveling 852 feet on the final attempt.

The Wrights obtained a patent for their methods in 1906, which they vigorously defended against other early aircraft builders under the corporate protection of the Wright Co., their first aircraft company. The brothers' obsessive (but not altogether unjustified) protection of this patent, and later aeronautical patents, hindered the development of a robust American aircraft industry for years, until government pressure finally forced the establishment of an aircraft industry cross-licensing organization, or patent pool, during World War I.

By 1916 the Wrights' aircraft company had merged with a competitor, and this newly augmented entity changed its name to Wright Aeronautical in 1919. Wright Aeronautical became the first aviation company to join the Dow Jones Industrial Average when it was added in in 1928. A year later, Wright Aeronautical merged again, this time with Curtiss Aeroplane, to become Curtiss-Wright (CW 2.35%), which would become America's largest aircraft manufacturer by the end of World War II. Curtiss-Wright is much smaller today, as it operates only as a specialist manufacturer of various advanced industrial components and has long since been eclipsed by more modern aircraft builders -- one of which helped create the passenger airline industry with its breakthrough DC-3.

Nonstop flight to success, with complimentary beverage service
The Douglas DC-3 was one of the most successful aircraft ever flown, and it all began with a test flight on Dec. 17, 1935. It was the aircraft that, according to current owner Boeing's (BA -3.76%) historical archives, "made air travel popular and airline profits possible." Its comfort and reliability, combined with superior fuel and construction economies, led to the aircraft's utter dominance of the air. Within four years of its first flight, more than 90% of the nation's airline passengers flew on DC-3s, or on its immediate predecessor, the DC-2.

More than 10,500 DC-3s were built by 1944, with in excess of 10,000 built as military variants for World War II. Another 8,000 were produced by licensed manufacturers. The DC-3 shortened transcontinental flights to between 15 and 17 hours, eliminating the earlier transcontinental travel method of combined short-hop flights and overnight trains. It was so well-built and functional that an estimated 2,000 are still flying to this day, primarily in developing nations, where the DC-3 is prized for its ability to land on the unpaved flight surfaces that were fairly common in pre-World-War-II America.

Douglas Aircraft, the DC-3's manufacturer, merged with McDonnell Aircraft to form McDonnell-Douglas in 1967. Four decades later, McDonnell-Douglas merged with Boeing, whose 247s had been pushed out of prominence decades many years earlier by the DC-3.

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