The first flight - Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, December 17, 1903

The dawning of modern aviation.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, experimenters in Europe and America were on the threshold of achieving flight.  One promising early approach - lighter-than-air dirigibles and airships - would prove to be a dead end; the future belonged to powered flight.  The Wright brothers became the first to fly in December 1903 and continued to improve their aircraft, but for years their work attracted no attention, while developments in Europe were slower and more uncertain.  The real breakthrough came in late summer 1908, when the Wrights gave flight demonstrations in Virginia and France, electrifying European aviators.  Suddenly, flight ceased to be merely a problem for researchers and became a sport for daredevils with short life expectancies.  The methodical Wrights were left behind; for the next few years the Europeans - especially the French - dominated aviation, which was now progressing at a furious rate.  Blériot flew the English Channel in July 1909; a month later an airshow at Rheims drew a quarter million spectators, as flying became a great popular enthusiasm.  Much of what later developed in aviation appeared in rudimentary form in these few years - the earliest airlines, primitive versions of helicopters and jet propulsion, and many other techniques.  At the same time aviation was very rapidly militarized; from 1909-1911 all the powers equipped their armies with airplanes and began to experiment with bombs, machine guns, torpedoes, and other military technology.  Aircraft were first used in war in 1911, only three years before the outbreak of WWI.


(1)  The beginnings of flight, 1903-1910

(2)  Aviation is militarized, 1911-1914

Sources include:
Robert Jackson.  The Guinness Book of Air Warfare.  Guinness Publishing.  1993
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr, ed.  The American Heritage History of Flight.  1962
John H. Morrow.  The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921.  1993
(Naval Historical Center: Naval Aviation chronology, 1898-1980)  
Michael J. H. Taylor, ed.  Jane’s Encyclopedia of Aviation.  1989