Flying through the ages

Flying through the ages

In this day and age of cutting-edge planes and cheap flight tickets, it's easy to take affordable, comfortable and speedy flights to all manner of destinations for granted. But it wasn't always like this; the transformation of aviation from an awkward first single-passenger flight to airports teeming with travellers bound for far-flung locations a century later was a process that came with its highs and lows - and the revolution is still going today.

The beginning

While some argue that the concept of manmade flight originally began in the 4th century BC with the advent of kite-flying in China, the first form of aircraft to actually take to the skies was a humble hot-air balloon in 1783. Over 90 years later, a steam engine plane took its place in history by managing to get six inches off the ground in London.

Possibly the most famous names recorded in the annals of early flight are those of Orville and Wilbur Wright, who made the first demonstration of sustained flight in 1903. Five years later, Orville Wright pioneered the first passenger flight, which lasted nearly six and a half minutes and carried one person other than the pilot.

All aboard

Over the next several decades, advancements in aviation theory and technology led to some major breakthroughs taking place, culminating in British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) - a predecessor of today's British Airways - operating the world's first jet-powered passenger service in 1952, taking 36 passengers from London to Johannesburg.

A BBC news report from that day gives some indication of the momentousness of the occasion. The plane, a De Havilland Comet 1, was described as being "regarded as a feather in the cap for British design and innovation", tipped to bring "a new era of faster, smoother air travel".

According to the article, the 7,000-mile journey included five stops, taking the total flight time to nearly 24 hours - a trip which today takes about 11 hours on a direct service. Passengers paid about £175 for a single ticket and £315 for a return fare at the time - today you could probably expect to pay in the region of £600 to £700 on average for a return flight.

Over the pond

The next major milestone for commercial passenger flight came in 1958 with the launch of the first jet-powered transatlantic passenger flight, another BOAC service that took off from London and touched down in New York just over ten hours later. Because of prevailing winds the Comet plane had to stop at Gander for refuelling, but the event nevertheless made history as the inaugural scheduled passenger flight to the USA.

Today, you're likely to make the journey over the Atlantic in around eight to eight and half hours without stopping, and in up to seven and a half hours back to the UK due to changes in the effects of winds on the plane.

The euphoria of making history was soon short-lived. Numerous accidents involving the Comet aircraft and the subsequent revelation of a major flaw in its design resulted in BOAC pulling the planes from service altogether, opening up the way for US firm Boeing to take the lead in the manufacture of passenger air vessels.

During the 1960s, Boeing aircraft became more widely used for passenger flights and the company went on to make a contribution to the pivotal moment in the space flight era when America sent its first man to the moon.

High living, high flying

Back on Earth, 1962 brought the beginnings of the Concorde venture from BOAC and Air France. Hailed as a historic moment for aviation, the service - which was capable of reaching speeds of up to 1,300 miles per hour - made its maiden supersonic flight in 1969 and first flew to the USA four years later, landing at Dallas-Fort Worth.

The first commercial Concorde service between London and New York took off in 1977 and became synonymous with high-class air travel and wealthy living in the following years. Although Concorde primarily flew to the Big Apple, it also operated routes to Washington DC, Rio De Janeiro, Caracas, Dallas, Mexico City and Singapore.

British celebrities embraced the supersonic service throughout its lifetime, with the likes of Sir Sean Connery, Sir Elton John, Kate Moss and members of the royal family taking advantage of its top speeds. Victoria Beckham also flew Concorde in 1999 for three dress fittings in preparation for her forthcoming nuptials.

However, the party ended when the service's near flawless safety record was shattered in 2000 with the crash of a New York-bound jet minutes after it took off, resulting in the deaths of all 109 people onboard the plane and four people on the ground. The government pulled Concorde from service immediately and attempted to reintroduce it in 2001. However, various setbacks led to the final commercial Concorde flight taking place in 2003.

The present day

Despite numerous high-profile air disasters over the years, commercial air travel continues to thrive. The largest passenger airliner to date, the Airbus A380, was introduced in 2005, but technological advancements in aviation have increasingly come to focus on environmental issues as the topic of climate change becomes ever more critical to consumers and businesses.

Boeing launched its 787 Dreamliner aircraft in 2007, a plane that uses 20 per cent less fuel per passenger than traditional air vessels and therefore results in fewer carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere. With further advancements in the area expected to be made in the near future - together with the rise of carbon offsetting as a way of negating the environmental cost of flying - it looks likely that air travel will continue to be one of the most popular forms of travel for holidaymakers for some time yet.