Positives and Negatives from a Century of Aviation
Little did the Wright brothers know, on December 17, 1903, when they successfully tested their flying machine at Kitty Hawk, what an influential industry they were launching. They could not have known in their wildest dreams that ninety-nine years later, an airport called Chicago O'Hare would facilitate some 383,362 landing and takeoff cycles each year. Or that by 1967, sixty-four years later, aerospace would become America's leading industrial employer, with some 1,484,000 employees, and sales of $27 billion, according to author Donald Pattillo (Pushing the Envelope). Nor could the Wright brothers know that a man would fly to the moon, and walk on the moon, by 1969, just sixty-six years after that little plane at Kitty Hawk left solid ground for a few triumphant seconds.
But though the Wright brothers' crude little aircraft got the aerospace industry off the ground to become such a big part of the U.S. And global economy, the evolution and growth of aviation has not been an entirely positive series of events. This paper will examine the effects - good and bad - that aviation has had on the economy, on the society, on the environment and on military power.
The Growth and Effects of Aviation
Long before the Wright brothers, there were numerous examples of "flights" in the U.S., but engines did not power those flights. According to Roger E. Bilstein (Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts), ballooning was a major spectator event in the mid-nineteenth century. "Essentially entertainers, American balloonists provided thrilling free-balloon ascents for enthralled crowds," Bilstein writes. The balloon flights also "...generated reams of rococo copy for local newspapers, and lifted the country to a state of balloon mania on the eve of the Civil War." More important than amusement and entertainment, the use of balloon flight in warfare was now beginning. In fact, the very first use of flight in warfare occurred in 1849, when the Austrians set loose several unmanned hot-air balloons "...rigged with delayed-action bombs during an attack on Venice," according to Bilstein. The results of those bombs were "negligible, although portents for the future were ominous," he continued.
During the Civil War, the Union Army used hot-air balloons for reconnaissance, although it was a short-lived campaign. Thaddeus S.C. Lowe was a skilled balloonist who built seven balloons for the North, and devised a system of filling balloons in the field with hydrogen generators that he had devised. At first, some key Confederate troop movements were indeed spotted by soldiers perched in the wicker baskets hanging from the balloons. This reconnaissance had some effect on the war, but soon, Lowe and the Union Army were clashing over the needed horses, wagons and soldiers that were needed to continue the balloon project afloat, and it was abandoned.
Meanwhile, the initial step towards military fixed-wing aviation occurred on February 10, 1908. That was when the Wright brothers signed their first contract with the army. The $25,000 deal - a far cry from the $100,000 the Wright brothers were originally asking the army to pay - represented the original instance of an airplane "being designed and built for delivery to a customer at a profit," according to Pattillo. That first plane (Wright Model A) was delivered to the army on schedule, on August 20, 1908. It was most unfortunate that a defective propeller caused the first plane to crash, killing Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge and injuring Orville Wright. But the army believed in the Wright Model A, ordered another, and it was delivered in June, 1909. The Wright brothers thus became "The Wright Company" - and by the end of 1911, their factory was constructing two planes per month.
What was the initial effect of these first single engine planes? Pattillo: "Internationally licensed production, initiated by the Wrights, became widely practiced." In fact, by 1911, France was recognized as the leading aeronautical nation, although a few years later, foreign businesses were investing in airplane factories in the U.S. The Mitsui Company financed the Standard Aero Corporation in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1916, and Anthony Fokker (Netherlands) built a factory, also in New Jersey, in 1924. Jobs created by this new technology were badly needed at that time in U.S. history, and had a very positive effect on local economies.
The Military sees a Bright Future in Flight
The Navy, though reluctant to venture into the air, conducted the first ship-to-shore flight on November 14, 1910, according to author Richard C. Knott (A Heritage of Wings: An Illustrated History of Navy Aviation). As a first, Eugene B. Ely flew a 50-horsepower Curtiss aircraft off a platform build over the forecastle of the cruiser Birmingham, and though he touched water briefly, he few the plane safely to land. That eased some of the Navy fears about flying. Then, on January 26th, 1911, the first seaplane lifted out of the water, into the air, near San Diego. Meanwhile, in May 1914, during the Mexican crisis (three U.S. sailors were arrested at Tampico), a Navy AH-3 hydro-aeroplane was hit by enemy fire, the first combat damage to an U.S. Navy aircraft.
When the U.S. entered World War I, in 1917, the Navy had just 38 qualified aviators, and only 54 airplanes, a few of which were shared with the Marines. But that changed by the end of the war, when planes were regularly bombing German ships and U-Boats. Knott writes, "Of the 2,107 aircraft in the U.S. Navy's inventory at war's end, only 242 were landplanes...in short, the seaplane was naval aviation and naval aviation was the seaplane." This huge jump in numbers of aircraft - and in the success of air-powered warfare - meant that, back home in the U.S., people were being hired and trained to build those planes in ever increasing numbers of factories. Clearly, the effect flight was having on war, was significant, both militarily, and economically.
By 1930, the average price for military planes jumped from $15,641 to $39,063, and the biggest manufacturer of aircraft was Lockheed. Within a few years, Northrop and Boeing emerged as competitors, too. An example of just how important the military was to the production of airplanes is noted in Wayne Biddle's book, Barons of the Sky. Between 1930 and 1932, Biddle writes, Donald Douglas (Douglas Aircraft), whose company was not affected by the Depression because "we weren't doing any civil work," felt confident enough "...to pay out some $1.5 million in dividends from net profits of $1.31 million." And a million and a half dollars in the early 1930s was a tremendous amount of money for people who had gamboled by buying stock in Douglas.
But the growth of aviation and aerospace wasn't just about swift transportation and U.S. defense. Biddle, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, writes: "From 1935 until the outbreak of the second global war, the American aviation business transmuted into an international munitions industry, a status it has kept ever since." What kind of effect did air power have in 1945, at the end of WWII? The inventory of American aircraft on the day Japan surrendered, Knott reports, was 41,000; also, there were 91 aircraft carriers, and aviation personnel numbered 431,000.
The Pacific Theater of the war might not have ended quite so soon, had it not been for the dropping of A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Which brings up the book, Nuclear Weapons and Aircraft Carriers: How the Bomb Saved Naval Aviation, by Jerry Miller, a former commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Immediately after the Japanese surrender, Miller's book points out, there was a big battle between the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy, over which group would deploy future atomic bombs in a wartime scenario. "The atomic bomb forced the Navy to change its delivery tactics...and the attainment of a nuclear weapons delivery capability was perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the carrier aviation community in the jet age," Miller states.
Miller concludes that because of the Navy's aircraft carrier capability to deliver nuclear weapons, the Navy has expanded, and thrived. This fact has also had an effect not only on the U.S. economy, and the communities within and surrounding sprawling Navy bases, but upon ports of call throughout the world, where the U.S. Navy is welcomed because they pump money into the local economy.
Negative Sides of Modern Aviation
Surely the most negative aviation-related event that has happened - and has had a tremendously harmful and lingering effect on the U.S. economy and on citizen morale - was the hijacking of jetliners by terrorists on September 11, 2001. On that day, America learned that large airplanes can quite easily be turned into missiles, and those missiles upon impact become potent bombs, to be used by our enemies against this nation. This is an issue that leaders must address, in terms of making airports truly secure and safe. Meanwhile, another kind of airport safety is in the news lately. A recent article in Time Magazine alludes not to…