3 planes that changed the course of modern aviation

Since the Wright brothers invented the world’s first successful airplane, there have been countless innovations within the aerospace sector.

In partnership with a number of aerospace experts here at epm: technology group, we examine the history behind three aircraft models which have been undoubtedly influential to modern aviation through both their design and technological advances.


The first model is arguably the most famous. Way ahead of its time, the well-loved supersonic aircraft flew around 2.5 million passengers up until its withdrawal in 2003.

The origins of Concorde date back to the 1950s when the idea of a supersonic passenger plane gained momentum due to aviator Chuck Yeager’s blast through the sound barrier. In 1962, the French president Charles de Gaulle made a plea for Britain and France to co-operate in building an aircraft which focused on speed rather than increased passenger capacity, as was the trend at the time. Due to the insistence that the aircraft should fly at supersonic speed, the model was deemed too expensive for any one country to fund alone. The word “Concorde” was first mentioned in reference to the supersonic aircraft project in 1963 during a speech by the French president. Britain referred to the aircraft initially as “Concord” without the ‘e’.

The project did not come without hitches however, as Britain’s new Labour government announced their withdrawal from the project in 1964, only to change their minds the following year. In 1967, in front of over a thousand onlookers, the first prototype French Concorde was rolled out in Toulouse. During this event, British technology minister Anthony Wedgwood Benn announced that the British aircraft would now also be known as “Concorde”, this time with the added ‘e’, which stood in his words for “excellence, England, Europe and entente”. In 1968, the British prototype made its debut.

Both models made their first flights in 1969, and began commercial service at Air France and British Airways in 1976. Before it was certified for passenger flight however, Concorde endured over 5,000 hours of testing – making it the most tested aircraft of all time.

Concorde measured 62.10m in length, was 11.40m high and had a wing span of 25.56m. Due to the heating of the airframe, it stretched between six and ten inches during flight meaning that all surfaces were warm to the touch by the end of a flight. To compensate for this, it was painted in a specially developed white paint to dissipate the heat generated by supersonic flight.

Powered by four Rolls-Royce/SNECMA Olympus 593 engines, it seated 100 passengers, had a take-off speed of 220 knots (250mph) and a cruising speed of 1350mph – more than twice the speed of sound. It was revolutionary in many ways, including being the first aircraft to have computer-controlled engine air intakes and carbon fibre brakes decades before they became mainstream technology. The innovative engine air intakes made it possible to slow the air down by 1,000 mph in the space of around 4.5s. Without this, the engines would have blown apart.

When travelling by Concorde, it was even possible for passengers to see the curvature of the earth as the plane could fly up to an amazing 60,000 feet.

A typical London to New York crossing took less than three and a half hours compared to approximately eight hours for a subsonic flight, and Concorde also holds the record for the fastest crossing by a civil aircraft. The quickest ever Concorde flight from New York to London took only 2 hours, 52 minutes and 29 seconds in 1996. Perhaps more impressively, Concorde flew around the world in 29 hours, 59 minutes in 1986, covering 28, 238 miles during that time.

Tragically, the Concorde project came to an end in 2003 following a fatal crash in 2000 which claimed the lives of 113 people and crippled investment for the venture; but it will always be remembered as a piece of pioneering engineering in the aerospace sector. A dreamer’s feat that broke new ground in travelling at great speeds.

Boeing 747 – the original “Jumbo Jet”

The Boeing 747, otherwise known as the “Jumbo Jet” or “Queen of the Skies”, is one of the most distinctive and successful planes of all time. With its famous shape, characterised by the ‘hump’ which contains the upper deck usually reserved for first class passengers, the 747 fleet has flown more than half of the world’s population.* Although its days are now numbered, as the first wide-body ever produced it has transformed the aerospace industry as we know it today.

Releasing the 747 was a big gamble in the late 1960s as supersonic travel, like the Concorde mentioned earlier, was seen as the future. Boeing stuck to their guns however, and built a hangar for the plane’s construction which was so large that, by volume, it remains the biggest building ever made. A team of around 50,000 construction workers, mechanics, engineers, secretaries and administrators – often referred to as “The Incredibles” – made aviation history by building the aircraft in less than 16 months.

The Boeing 747 is assembled from around 6 million parts, half of which are fasteners or rivets. The fuselage is a framework of beams and ribs in the shape of a large tube. All parts are made from lightweight aluminium alloys and the aluminium is mixed with various other metals such as copper and zinc to make it tougher. The outer skin of the plane is just five millimetres thick, and between the outer skin and internal panels there are soundproof and heat-resistant materials.

The 747 is 19.35 metres high, 76 metres long and seats a maximum of 660 passengers. This capability was a large factor in the success of the aircraft. When the 747 debuted, it meant that there was a large increase in the number of passengers it was possible to transport per flight, which brought down the per-seat cost of operation. This gave airlines the opportunity to offer flights to new, exciting destinations around the world.

The aircraft was a big hit with customers, as it meant that they had the chance to travel in comfortable conditions for less money. For many years, the 747 was considered the gold standard for passenger air travel. Sir Richard Branson launched his airline with a 747 flight, and modified versions of the 747 were often used to transport space shuttles.

It is sad to think that this giant of an aircraft could disappear from our skies in the near future, but the aerospace industry is once again beginning to focus more on speed than capacity. Technological advances in the reliability of turbofan engines have also meant that the 747’s four are no longer needed, with trends shifting towards two-engined ‘mini jumbos’ instead. That said, this plane will forever remain iconic.


Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is one of the most revolutionary aircraft designs of recent years, and Boeing’s most fuel-efficient airliner in a time when the health of the planet is a big issue on everyone’s minds.

The development of the 787 began in the early 1990s when Boeing decided that they needed a replacement for their aging 767 model. With competition from Concorde, speed became a desirable feature. With this in mind, Boeing floated the idea of a sub-sonic cruiser which would dramatically reduce journey times whilst staying below the speed of sound. Boeing’s issue with the speeds attained by Concorde was that it meant the aircraft could only be operated over water, which made it unsaleable to most airlines.

The sub-sonic cruiser attracted a fair amount of interest, but the idea never had the chance to come to fruition. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 had a devastating effect on the aerospace industry, sending fuel costs skyrocketing and causing airlines to shift their focus from speed to efficiency.

Unveiled as the “Dreamliner” in 2003 after an online competition, was instead a plane which ran at a similar speed to most of today’s fastest passenger planes, (Mach 0.85) but quietly innovated in other ways.

The 787 is the first commercial airplane to have a composite fuselage and wings. The model contains approximately 77,000 lb of carbon fibre-reinforced polymer (CFRP) made with 51,000 lb of carbon fibre. As we know here at epm, the use of composite materials allows for a significantly lighter aircraft, therefore making it an unbelievable 20% more fuel efficient than other equivalent models being flown today. Boeing also claims that the 787 makes 60% less noise. One of the other most interesting aspects of the 787 is that it uses powerful Lithium-ion batteries on a large scale for the first time. By using more electric systems on board, the 787 does not require bleed air from the engines for the likes of air conditioning, which also helps to save an incredible amount of fuel.

As the aerospace industry continues to evolve, we enjoy seeing more and more developments of both old and new ideas in designs which incorporate engineering skill and technology that we have acquired in the centuries since the Wright Brothers made their first flight.

In brief – other planes that broke the mould:

Airbus A320 – First airliner to implement fly-by-wire controls which reduced arm fatigue for pilot

Rutan Model 76 Voyager – The first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refuelling


Image source: Wikimedia.org

MacCready Gossamer Albatross – The first human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel


Image source: Wikimedia.org