14 Landmark Innovations That Changed the Course of Aviation History

We take aviation for granted, with airports for every city, jet routes to every popular destination, and private jets for luxury travel—but the business jet is a fairly new invention. The military began to develop small jet-powered cabin-class aircraft as VIP transports in the 1950s, and soon the private sector caught on to the trend, with Learjet and Dassault Falcon introducing their private jets in the early 1960s. Those aircraft were cutting-edge for their time, but over the decades the safety, comfort, efficiency, and capability of private jets have improved dramatically, and technology continues to move forward.


The Jet Engine

The jet engine itself is a huge step up from piston engines, which are built from hundreds of interacting parts, systems, and subsystems. Pistons require constant maintenance and are prone to breaking down. But the pure simplicity of the jet engine is its strongest asset—air is taken in at the front, compressed, then sprayed with fuel and set on fire. The burning gases expand and blast out from the rear of the engine, creating thrust to drive the jet forward. It’s simple and reliable, and Bruce Landsberg, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board and longtime aviation-safety advocate, calls it “one of the most effective safety enhancements ever.” Plus, jet aircraft can fly faster and at higher altitudes than piston-driven airplanes, enabling them to get above most weather systems.


The Boeing 747

As technology developed, more and more options opened up for private flying. The early business jets were fairly small, providing practical transport for small groups of executives. By the 1970s, Boeing’s 747 was flying on routes around the world. The iconic airplane, measuring more than 200 feet nose to tail, created opportunities for heads of state, rock stars, and the superrich to support not just fast, comfortable travel, but also full living and working spaces. Bedroom suites, offices, and onboard movie theaters are no problem with 4,000 square feet of interior space. The 747 has served as Air Force One since 1987, providing presidential living quarters, office and rest areas, and two onboard galleys that can serve up to 100 people at a time. Today, the airplane is still the second-largest passenger plane in the world, outranked only by the Airbus A380.


The Sikorsky S-76

Jets are not the only executive transport: In 1977, Sikorsky introduced the S-76 series helicopter, which was originally built to serve offshore oil and gas rigs but soon became popular for private flying, with the option of bypassing airports to find helipads closer to central cities, or even open fields next to country retreats. By its 40th anniversary, last year, the S-76 was serving as transport for heads of state in 10 countries, and more than 130 were flying a corporate or VIP mission.


Cockpit Computerization

Business jets now have a phenomenal safety record—easily beating travel by car, and close to the high bar set by airline travel. One of the many factors that contribute to this is the advance of “glass cockpits,” with the introduction of computers into the instrument panel, a trend that has been accelerating since the 1980s. Before then, cockpits were cluttered with hundreds of gauges and switches. Pilots would navigate using paper charts and depend on the radio for weather updates. Now, computer monitors show the airplane’s track over the ground on a moving map, while also showing the pilots all relevant weather in real time, as well as other nearby aircraft. The computers make the crew’s job not only easier and more intuitive but also much safer.


Fractional Ownership

Not everyone who wants one (or who could benefit from one) can afford or justify a private jet, and in the 1980s, NetJets launched with a shared-ownership model. In 1995, the legendary investor Warren Buffett bought the company; today it continues to grow, and it remains the world’s largest fractional-jet company. Private travelers now can choose from a wide range of options, from NetJets and a wide range of competitors. Operators offer not only fractional-jet ownership, but also charter, jet cards, and membership plans that provide an app for quick booking online.


Global Positioning System

It’s hard now to imagine a world without GPS, when it works in the background on all of our convenient devices—not only helping us to navigate from home to the next meeting using our phone, but also driving the navigation systems in aircraft. The Global Positioning System, based on a network of satellites, was originally put in place by the U.S. military in the 1970s, and now it is freely available to all. It can pinpoint any location on the planet with an accuracy of less than 12 inches. The system makes navigation safer and more efficient, and even can be used to design approaches to runways, making ground-based infrastructure obsolete.


Fuel-Efficiency Improvements

As business aviation has grown over the decades, jet manufacturers have competed for customers by constantly improving and upgrading their products, making them not only faster and more comfortable, but also more fuel-efficient, with longer range and better performance. Modern jets are about twice as fuel efficient as the earliest models. In the 1990s, manufacturers began to add winglets to the ends of the jets’ wings, creating an upsweep that enhances the wing’s aerodynamics, increasing fuel efficiency by as much as 4 to 5 percent. Advances in composite materials, engine technology, and aerodynamics continue to drive efficiency improvements. Carbon-fiber composites are light and strong and enable designers to create more-complex shapes for the fuselage that minimize the effect of drag on the airframe; they’ve been in widespread use since the early 2000s.


Creature Comforts

Cabin comfort and amenities also have continuously evolved over the decades. Carbon-fiber hulls made it possible for engineers to increase the interior cabin pressure, as compared to what was possible with aluminum airframes. The interior air pressure now can be kept closer to ground level, which is more comfortable for passengers and helps reduce the effects of jet lag. Improvements in humidity control also add to comfort levels. Quieter cabins reduce stress, and bigger windows let in more natural light for a subtle upgrade in ambience.


Staying Connected

Travelers are accustomed to having full access to the Internet everywhere they go—at airports, on trains, in their cars. But designing high-speed systems that work reliably in aircraft cabins as they fly anywhere in the world has been challenging. Jet-fleet operators now are able to tap into global satellite systems that let private-jet passengers stream video on their own devices and join videoconference calls while en route. Over the last 10 years, the technology has gone from being an optional perk to a necessity that travelers expect.


The Weather Overground

Weather has long been the one uncontrollable variable most challenging to all forms of aviation. Our modern jets can fly above most of the clouds and rain, but when it comes to landings and take-offs, crews still need to deal with the conditions close to the ground. Low-lying fog can obscure airport lights and runway markings, and low clouds, precipitation, and nighttime conditions make it difficult to navigate terrain on the way to or from the airport.

As computers have proliferated in cockpits over the last two decades, even these challenges have been dealt with. Pilots now can reference “synthetic vision” in the cockpit, a system that consults databases and onboard sensors to create a “moving map” display. Via a computer monitor or a head-up projection, 3-D images provide a clear virtual image of the terrain and the airport as the crew approaches to land. These systems “have almost eliminated Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) for routine operations,” says Landsberg, of the NTSB.


Elite Seats

Along with safety and performance, private jets have made huge advances in passenger comfort. One of the most competitive products among jet-interior design houses is ergonomic seating, with new products constantly in development. This year, Bombardier introduced the Nuage seat, which aims to “move as you do,” providing both comfort and support for the ultimate in luxury. The chair features a deep recline, a tilting headrest, and a swivel axis for effortless positioning. Embraer also designed new seats for its business jets last year, with an extendable headrest, a broader back, a retractable armrest, and extendable leg rests. The seats not only upgrade passengers’ ergonomic comfort, but also make better use of cabin space, creating wider aisles and easier mobility.


Staying in Your Lane

It may seem an unlikely event that two airplanes would collide while flying, but history marks quite a few of these tragic events. In recent years, with advances in technology, midair collisions have become increasingly rare, especially for jets—but by 2020, they are expected to reduce to near zero. By then, nearly all aircraft will be mandated to be equipped with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) technology. The ADS-B devices—which can be installed on any aircraft, from the biggest airliner to the smallest private plane—provide signals that enable pilots to track all other aircraft in their vicinity on a screen in their cockpit, regardless of weather or visibility. “NTSB suggested this after numerous crashes in Alaska, Hawaii, and in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Landsberg, “and this has been one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s greatest successes.”


Cirrus about Technology

While the trend in business jets has always been toward bigger and faster, a small aviation company in Duluth, Minn., has bucked that trend with its small, owner-flown personal jet. Last year, the Cirrus Vision Jet won the prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy, awarded annually to the “greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America.” The single-engine jet was designed to be easy to fly and easy for a single owner to take care of and manage. It’s also the first jet to be equipped with a full-airframe parachute system as standard equipment, assuring owners that they always have a safe option to solve any challenges they might face in the air.

The aircraft features seating for up to five adults and two children, panoramic windows, reclining seats, and comfortable legroom. The flight deck is equipped with a custom panel by Garmin, and the fuselage is formed from lightweight but strong carbon fiber. A “piggyback” placement for the jet engine combined with a vee tail reduces cabin noise. The company says it has a backlog of 600 orders for the $2 million jet.


Aireon Flight Tracking

For years, we’ve all been accustomed to the idea that there are air traffic controllers always on duty, who are able to track aircraft on their radar screens and ensure that all are safely on track. But while this is true in the vicinity of airports and along many busy flight paths, it’s not true everywhere—70 percent of the sky, across oceans, forests, deserts, and the Arctic and Antarctic, is beyond the reach of our radar systems. Controllers keep track of aircraft only by having the crew check in over the radio.

The limitations of this system became clear when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing over the Indian Ocean in March 2014 and the world collectively held its breath during the extended search. Since then, Aireon and its partners have been working to create a space-based system, using Iridium Next satellites, that will extend ADS-B coverage everywhere, covering 100 percent of the sky. The system not only provides an unprecedented safety backup, but also will enable operators to fly more efficiently, reducing costs. The final satellite launch is scheduled for January, when the system will become fully operational.


Business aviation has made a lot of progress in just about 60 years or so, from those earliest executive jets to today’s powerful and high-tech options. Over the decades, technology has made flying dramatically safer, more comfortable, faster, and easier to manage. The next 60 years are likely to bring an even faster pace of change, as engineers work to design business aircraft that fly at supersonic speeds, operate autonomously, are powered by electric or hybrid drives, and take advantage of yet more advances in materials and aerodynamics.


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