Photo Essay: The History of Air Travel

From the first drawings of Leonardo da Vinci to the concept of modern-day space flights, air travel has come a long way.

Modern air travel’s safety and accessibility are greatly indebted to aviation’s long history of experiments, failures, accidents and deaths.

From flying machines like ornithopters to balloons filled with gases lighter-than-air, humankind’s desire to fly led to contraptions that initially fell short of providing sustained flight.

Why? Early designs were missing the two things needed to keep them aloft: power and control. The addition of these two factors helped to turn early dreams of flight into a real mode of transportation available to all.


Flying machines based on birds seem so logical that these machines, known as ornithopters, continue to be designed today. An early sketch of an ornithopter was doodled by Leonardo da Vinci in 1490, and basically transposed the design of bird wings onto the human body.

Ornithopters added flapping wings to human bodies, but didn’t enable flight. Image by Leonardo da Vinci.

These wings were supposed to enable flight when flapped using a system of pulleys. While preliminary designs were on the right track in terms of the shape of the wing, the human body simply cannot produce the amount of power needed to keep these contraptions in flight.

For this reason, modern ornithopters incorporate the use of engines instead.


The discovery of lighter-than-air gases such as hydrogen and helium led to the design of balloons and airships that used these gases to gain lift.

Balloons were used by the French to transport mail during the Franco-Prussian war from 1870 to 1871, and a hydrogen-filled balloon was used by S.A. Andrée in his 1897 attempt to float from Sweden to the North Pole.

This expedition ended abruptly when the balloon deflated after only two days, leaving the expedition members to die from exposure to the elements.

S.A. Andrée’s 1897 polar expedition ended with the deaths of all three crew members, including Nils Strindberg, who took this photo. Photo by Nils Strindberg.

Airships improved on this basic design by incorporating multiple cells filled with gas, rather than the single cell used in simple balloons. The biggest flaw in these airships was the use of flammable hydrogen.

The Empire State Building was built to accommodate commercial airships before the Hindenburg disaster effectively halted their use. Photo by United States Naval Historical Center.

After the Hindenburg fire caused the deaths of 35 people in 1937, airships became synonymous with disaster and their use as commercial air transport ceased.

Modern airships using non-flammable helium are currently in operation, though they are only used as rides or advertisements.


Simple balloons contributed to modern air travel in the 1950s with Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior, which sent balloons and pilots into the stratosphere to monitor the effects of space travel on humans.

The data from these projects was invaluable in the early days of space exploration and informed the development of high-altitude airplanes.

Project Manhigh’s Captain Joseph Kittenger jumped from his balloon’s gondola at over 100,000 feet – and survived. Photo by U.S. Air Force.


Modern aviation started at Kitty Hawk, right? Not exactly.

The Wright brothers actually carried out many of their experiments with powered flying machines at nearby Kill Devil Hills.

As with many major discoveries, there is some dispute about who actually invented practical flying machines, but the Wright brothers are credited with designing and flying, in 1903, the first fixed-wing aircraft that actually flew.

The Wright brothers used their observations of birds in flight to design wings that pilots could control. Photo by John T. Daniels.

Improved knowledge of aerodynamics led to many designs using fixed wings instead of the flapping wings of ornithopters, but the Wright brothers were the first to design fixed wings that could be manipulated by the pilot.

Noting that birds control flight by moving the tips of their wings, the Wright brothers built adjustable panels into the wings of their flying machines.

The addition of engines provided the speed needed to get off the ground, and the modern airplane was born.


Airplanes were generally used only by the military until the end of the First World War in 1918, when, using surplus airplanes, skilled military pilots took to the skies to introduce rubberneckers to barnstorming and wing walking.

Skilled pilots thrilled post-World War I audiences with aerial acrobatics. Photo by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington.

The U.S. Postal Service began delivering mail by air in this period, leading many towns and cities to build airports, and in 1925 the Ford Motor Company introduced a 12-seat airplane intended for civilian air travel.

These early commercial flights were generally short hops since the airplanes needed constant refueling, but that changed with the introduction of the Douglas DC-3 in 1935.

Using high-powered engines that needed fewer refueling stops, the Douglas DC-3 could fly across the continental U.S. in 15 hours.

The Douglas DC-3 was among the first aircraft built as transportation for civilians. Photo by Peter Erbar.


Aircraft design improved during the Second World War, as nations flush with developmental funds rushed to build fast, high-altitude bombers.

Developments in the pressurization of aircraft cabins came from bombers such as the B-29, and led to commercial airliners such as the Boeing Stratocruiser and the Douglas DC-6.

These commercial airplanes could carry more weight and travel faster and higher thanks to improved engines and aerodynamics.

B-29 bombers had improved cabin pressure, allowing pilots to fly higher than ever before. Photo by United States Airforce.

1969 saw the first flight of the Concorde, the supersonic aircraft capable of flying non-stop between Paris and New York in less than four hours.

With a maximum altitude of over 60,000 feet, the Concorde required pressurization of the cabin and protection from radiation for the crew and passengers, both reliably tested by wartime aircraft and early space travel experiments such as Project Manhigh.

The Concorde made air travel fast and luxurious, for those who could afford it. Photo by HenrysalomeMG.


Since flights on Concorde were out of the financial reach of most ordinary passengers, many airlines began building massive jumbo jets like the Boeing 747 and the Airbus.

These airliners weren’t incredibly fast, but they could carry many people and large amounts of weight, meaning the price per passenger suddenly became affordable for the average citizen.

Jumbo jets made air travel affordable and are still in use today. Photo by Phillipe Noret.

Jumbo jets suddenly allowed everyone to travel by airplane, and turned an experience previously reserved for trained personnel or the elite into a viable, affordable mode of transportation.

Still in use today, jumbo jets ushered in an era in which global air travel became available to all.


The accessibility of air travel led some to speculate about the commercial potential of space travel. As aviation technology improved, it seemed space colonies and space hotels could finally become real commercial endeavors. Right? Sort of.

In 2004, SpaceShipOne became the first privately-owned craft to achieve spaceflight, potentially introducing an era of commercial space travel.

However, ticket prices on privately-owned spacecraft were listed at around $200,000 each–hardly attainable to the average citizen and SpaceShipOne was retired in 2005.

Richard Branson is still working to make Virgin Galactic a reality but affordable space travel – for the time being – is still just a dream.

Spaceplanes like SpaceShipOne may someday make commercial space travel a reality. Photo by Rokits XPrize Gallery.

Only time will tell what amazing aviation technology mankind will come up with next. Where do you see us flying to in the next few decades? Would you take a space flight? Let me know in the comments.

If you liked this, you might also like: Why Planes Crash.

Main photo: A unique view after take off by Benson Kua.

5 thoughts on “Photo Essay: The History of Air Travel”

  1. Wow, well written and informative post. I wonder what the next 100 years of air travel are going to bring us. A shift towards space travel.. or just bigger planes. Interesting times ahead!

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