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A black and white image of a vintage propeller aircraft on a runway

As a distributor and manufacturer of aerospace fasteners since 1958, we’ve always been fascinated by the rapid development of our industry. The last 100 years have seen us go from wooden gliders to landing drones on Mars.

With that in mind, we’ve picked our top 5 five key innovative advancements that have helped mankind travel faster than the speed of sound and walk on the moon.

1. The Airfoil – Swept Wing

It was a German aerodynamicist, Adolf Busemann, researching ways to reduce drag at high speed who came up with this solution. Germany began researching it in 1935 but never managed to complete the research. Instead it was seized after the Second world War by the U.S. Airforce.

This combined with their independent research on the topic led to the the release of the F-86 in ‘47.

2. Propellers

Flight began with gliders. And light aircraft could fly for a pretty long time even without an engine. However, pioneers like the Wright brothers wanted something more than a glider.

They wanted a machine that could propel them through the air, not just drift along on air currents. How though do you propel something through the air?

The brothers designed and built the very first airplane propellers as well as dedicated four-cylinder, water cooled engines to spin them.

Propellers have come a long way since then, but it was that initial idea that got us first soaring through the air under man-powered propulsion.

3. Jet Engine / Turbo Charged

The next step along our journey of flight is the much more efficient and advanced jet engine. Researchers discovered around the end of the first world war that if you compressed the air before letting it into a piston engine you could significantly boost the power of the engine.

In 1937 the first jet engine was tested by Frank Whittle.

It didn’t work like the piston-engine prop planes of the day. Instead, Whittle’s engine sucked air through forward-facing compressor blades.

This air entered a combustion chamber, where it mixed with fuel and burned. A superheated stream of gases then rushed from the tailpipe, pushing the engine and the aircraft forward.

In 1941 the British Government created the Gloster E.28/39 using Whittle’s invention. Successive models of the Gloster Meteor jet were, unsurprisingly, highly successful.

Today’s jet engines are reserved mainly for military planes. Commercial airlines use turbofan engines which work in a similar fashion but are much more economical to produce and make far less noise.

4. Aluminium and Aluminium Alloys

Back in 1902 the most sophisticated aircraft of the day was built of a muslin ‘skin’ stretched over a spruce frame. Over time wood and fabric gave way to laminated wood monocoque, an aircraft structure in which the plane’s skin bears some or all of the stresses.

Monocoque fuselages allowed for stronger, more streamlined planes, leading to a number of speed records in the early 1900s. The material just wasn’t strong enough though and required constant repair.

By the 1930’s pretty much all aircraft were made of metal. Steele being the obvious candidate – strong and resistant to corrosion. But it was simply too heavy.

Aluminum, on the other hand, was lightweight, strong and easy to shape into various components. Fuselages bearing brushed aluminum panels, held together by rivets, became a symbol of the modern aviation era. But the material came with its own problems, the most serious being metal fatigue.

Over the year various aluminium alloys have been created. Huge amounts of investment and time have gone in to developing higher quality alloys and materials for every part of the airplane.

Not least of which are aircraft fasteners which have to have extremely high tensile strength and be as light as possible.

For more on this, check out our blog: ‘How are aerospace fasteners keeping up with defense technology?

5. Pitot Tubes

The last one on the list is a bit different. When in the cockpit pilots need to keep track of a vast amount of data. Among these is airspeed – the velocity of the aircraft relative to the air mass in which it is flying.

For specific flight configurations, whether that’s landing or just cruising through the air, a plane’s speed must be very controlled and remain within a narrow range of values.

For example, if it flies too slowly, it can suffer an aerodynamic stall, when there is insufficient lift to overcome the downward force of gravity. If it flies too rapidly, it can suffer structural damage.

The pitot tube is the device designed to bear the burden of measuring this oh so important piece of data.

The devices get their name from Henri Pitot, a Frenchman who needed a tool to measure the speed of water flowing in rivers and canals. His solution was a slender tube with two holes — one in front and one on the side.

Pitot oriented his device so that the front hole faced upstream, allowing water to flow through the tube. By measuring the pressure differential at the front and side holes, he could calculate the speed of the moving water.

Airplane engineers realised they could achieve the same thing in air.

Final Words

There are plenty more incredible innovations that have jettisoned the aerospace industry into the future and gotten us where we are today. Landing gear is worth a mention, for example. This list is just five of our favourites.

What is you favourite innovation? Let us know in the comments below?

Image Credit: @contsantineh