Word War II Gave Birth to Jet Aircraft
Nothing stimulates technological progress more than armed conflict. That’s a disturbing fact about human nature, but it’s nonetheless true. For proof, we need only look at World War II. Some of the advances that emerged from that global struggle include multi-stage rockets, microwave-enabled radar systems, and of course, atomic energy. Another leap forward came with the invention of the first practical jet aircraft. Propeller-driven planes served aviators well during the first 40 years or so of powered flight. They continue to serve important roles today. But, as handy and reliable as propellers are, they’re only efficient at relatively low speeds and altitudes. Aware of this fact, inventors as far back as 1910 envisioned using heated gases as an aircraft propellant. Germany pioneered research into jet aircraft in the 1920s and 30s. The Luftwaffe flew the world’s first turbojet-driven plane, the Heinkel He 178, in 1939. The Italians followed up with their Caproni Campini N. 1 in 1940 and the British with their Gloster E. 28/39 the same year. The United States unveiled its first jet plane, the Bell X P-59A, in 1942. RELATED: The True Story of the Memphis Belle
Jet planes remained in the experimental phase until Germany unveiled the Messerschmitt Me 262 and 1941. Had the Germans put the weapon into production right away it might have altered the course of the war. Fortunately, Hitler diverted resources away from building jets to developing the V-1 and V-2, which killed a lot of innocent Londoners but had no strategic effect on the conflict.
World War II ended in 1945, but this did not stop the US from introducing the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star during that year. America unveiled its first jet-powered bomber, the North American B-45 Tornado, in 1948. The US military used both planes during the Korean War.
Civilian use of jets began on a mass scale in 1952, when Boeing introduced the de Havilland Comet jetliner. Tragically, the aircraft suffered from a design defect that caused three of them to disintegrate in mid-air. Boeing grounded the planes and began extensive research to find the cause, tracing the problem to metal fatigue caused by the use of aluminum. The company revamped the Comet and released it again in 1958, but sales suffered due to the earlier problem.
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Current jet designs focus on increased speeds and altitudes. The US Air Force is developing jets capable of speeds up to Mach 5 (3806 mph). Future goals include jet fighters able to fly at speeds of Mach 25, just a hair under 20,000 mph.
America’s enthusiasm for faster aircraft is driven largely by Chinese efforts to build missiles capable of defeating US defense measures. China tested just such a device in December 2014. American observers clocked its speed at around Mach 10. Whichever nation wins this arms race is likely to dominate the battlefield for the foreseeable future.
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