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History of Flight Zoom In

Browse through historic images from our archive.

World War I flying ace, 1st Lt. Eddie Rickenbacker                          Image from National Archives    

100 Years of Flight: From the National Geographic Archives 
By Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

A few years after its founding in 1888, National Geographic began chronicling innovations born out of the fire-in-the-belly spirit that inspired celebrated inventors as well as backyard mechanics in their race toward achieving powered flight.
Within our pages in 1903, inventor and National Geographic Society founder Alexander Graham Bell reported on his aviation experiments with tetrahedral kites, four-sided pyramidal structures large enough to carry a man and eventually designed to be rigged with a light motor. Later that same year, bicycle-shop owner Orville Wright made the first powered flight.
We've combed through the magazine's rich archives to bring you riveting first ever moments and ceremonial evenings honoring accomplishments that once had been deemed impossible. Go back to November 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge presented Charles Lindbergh—first to fly solo across the Atlantic—with America's highest exploration award, National Geographic Society's Hubbard Gold Medal. Read Amelia Earhart's 1932 acceptance speech when President Herbert Hoover awarded her the Society's Special Medal for being the first woman to make a solo transatlantic crossing. She charmed the audience as she set the record of her journey straight: "I did not kill a cow in landing—unless one died in fright," she said (right).  
Other special features include a 1953 article predicting advancements during the next 50 years of flight (right), a selection of vintage photographs (left) marking historical milestones in aviation, and a brief history explaining how two men working independently of each other are considered co-inventors of the jet engine (below).

After exploring the past, post your thoughts about the future of flight in our forum.

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Amelia Earhart
Relive Amelia Earhart's solo adventure across the Atlantic as she describes it upon receiving National Geographic's Special Medal in 1932.

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Charles Lindbergh
Join Lindbergh the evening of November 14, 1927, when President Calvin Coolidge awarded him the Society's Hubbard Gold Medal for being the first to fly solo across the Atlantic. 

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Learn what predictions for the future of flight captured our attention in 1953.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

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Though both Frank Whittle and Hans von Ohain worked independently of each other, they are generally considered co-inventors of the jet engine, which revolutionized aircraft design and operation. Whittle was the first to bench test the jet engine on April 12, 1937, in Britain, while von Ohain was the first to create an operational turbojet engine to power an airplane on August 27, 1939, in Germany.
Whittle, an engineering pilot for the Royal Air Force (RAF), recognized the potential demand for a plane that could fly at faster speeds and higher altitudes than the early piston-engine propeller-driven planes, and attempted to advance the idea that gas turbine propulsion (jet engine) was a practical next step. (Jet engines suck in air at the front, compress it, and mix it with fuel in the combustion chamber. The resulting exhaust gases produce the thrust that moves the airplane forward.) 
Whittle tried unsuccessfully to obtain official support and funding from the British government to develop the idea, but the Air Ministry ridiculed him, saying gas turbine engines would be impractical. They claimed the turbojet engine would be too heavy and fuel inefficient. Whittle was not dissuaded. He obtained a patent for a turbojet engine in 1930, and joined with others to found the company Power Jets Ltd. After overcoming technical problems, he produced the first successful bench test of a jet engine on the ground. "He kept working on the jet engine idea when others scoffed," says aviation historian Roger Bilstein.
Around the same time in Germany, a graduate of the University of Goettingen, Hans von Ohain, was also investigating how to design a jet engine. He was fortunate to work with renowned German aircraft builder Ernst Heinkel, who hired von Ohain and allowed him to carry out experiments in secret in his factory. Von Ohain successfully developed his own engine design during 1937-38 and went on to design the engine used in the HE-178, the world's first operational jet aircraft, flown in 1939.
World War II finally propelled the British government to support Whittle's work, and a jet engine of his was fitted onto a Gloster E.28/39, which had a successful first flight in 1941. Later versions of this engine powered the first Allied jet fighter of World War II, the RAF Gloster Meteor, and became the basis for other early postwar jet fighters in Britain and the United States. The German Messerschmitt 262, using improved engines, became the first operational jet fighter widely produced.

Jet engines have greatly increased the speed of planes—a propeller-driven plane can fly upwards of 500 mph (800 kph), while the fastest modern jets reach well beyond 2,000 mph (3,000 kph).
—Christy Ullrich
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