Boeing Frontiers
July 2003
Volume 02, Issue 03
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Historical Perspective

Century of Flight


The Boeing B-47 Stratojet and North American F-86 Sabre During World War II all of the major powers committed a great deal of money toward research and development of new technologies and toward improving existing technology. As a result, aerospace and related technologies made great advances during the war.

Radar was a new technology that first saw service during World War II but had its beginnings in the 1930s. Guglielmo Marconi, the father of radio, first suggested that ships use radio waves to help find each other in bad weather. His suggestion prompted test and development in the United States, Germany and England, and by 1935, England had begun deployment of early warning radar that would play a significant role in England's lone struggle against the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Consequently, the ability to use radar to guide ships and planes to their targets gave German, British and American airplanes and ships a distinct advantage while fighting at night.

The helicopter was among the new type of aircraft introduced during the war, with Louis Bréguet and Rene Dorand developing the first flyable helicopter in France in 1935. Six months later in Germany, Henrich Focke's Fa-61 flew. Germany successfully used helicopters in support of naval operations during the war. And, in the United States, Igor Sikorsky developed the first successful American helicopters that saw limited use in combat and in search-and-rescue operations.

However, one of the best examples of how quickly technology advanced in the 1940s can be seen in the rapid changes in airplanes. Nearly all countries at the beginning of the world war in 1939 had open-cockpit biplanes as part of their frontline air force. Yet by the war's end six years later, most of the major combatants had at least one jet combat plane.

Bell X-1 rocket-powered airplaneIt was on April 12, 1937, that Britain's Sir Frank Whittle fired up the world's first jet engine. But first-flight honors went to Germany, as it was the first nation to fly a jet aircraft—a Heinkel He-178—on Aug. 27, 1939.

Early jet airplanes were not much faster than their piston counterparts. They were slow to accelerate and not very maneuverable, so it took some time before they finally went into operational service. England was first, introducing the Gloster Meteor in 1944; but Germany soon followed with a jet that would prove to be the best fighter aircraft of the war—the Messerschmitt Me-262.

The secret of the Me-262's success was its swept-wing design, which allowed speeds of 540 mph, nearly 100 mph faster than the best Allied piston-powered fighters. With the fall of Germany, the Allies were able to recover a great deal of German technology, including the idea of the swept wing. These discoveries were quickly sent back to the United States and had immediate impact on the development of America's first swept-wing jets, the Boeing B-47 Stratojet and the North American F-86 Sabre.

One other area of research that the Allies were desperate to recover was Germany's rocket technology. Following the success of Robert Goddard's rocket experiments in the United States, Germany began its own rocket program, which led to the development of the first ballistic missile—the V-2. Germany launched more than 3,000 V-2s at targets in southern England.

Along with rocket technology, the Allies also vigorously pursued German rocket scientists. An important German scientist who found his way to the United States was the head of Germany's rocket program, Werner von Braun. Von Braun went on to lead the development of the Saturn booster that powered the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon.

Pursuit of advancements in jets, rockets and the use of the power of the atom would continue to fuel an explosion of research and development well into the following decade, the 1950s.

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part article on the 1940s. This part chronicles the amazing technological advances in aircraft and rockets during the decade.


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