Pre-1920 Aviation

The Wright brothers inaugurated the aerial age with their historic first flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. The influence of their invention is beyond measure. The transport by air of goods and people, quickly and over great distances, and the military applications of flight technology have had vast economic, geopolitical, and cultural impact around the globe. The Wrights helped fashion a radically new world.

The first glimpses of what that world would become are reflected in the pioneer aircraft of the first decade after 1903 and the airplanes of World War I, when human flight began to come of age. In less than two decades, the airplane was transformed from an exciting new invention to a machine of practical utility, primed to become the defining technology of the 20th century.


Caudron G.4 at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Caudron G-4
The 1917 French twin-engine Caudron G.4 has great significance as an early light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. It was a principal type used when these critical air power missions were being conceived and pioneered in World War I. Although fighter aircraft frequently gain greater attention, the most influential role of aviation in the First World War was reconnaissance. The extensive deployment of the Caudron G.4 in this role makes it an especially important early military aircraft. Moreover, despite its speed and armament limitations, the Caudron G.4 was quite reliable, had a good rate of climb, and was pleasant to fly, all characteristics that made it a good training aircraft after its combat effectiveness was reduced. Many Allied pilots received their initial flight training on the Caudron G.4. The Museum's Caudron is among the oldest surviving bomber aircraft in the world, and one of the very few remaining multi-engine aircraft from this period.

More information: Caudron G-4

Langley Aerodrome A at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Langley Aerodrome A
Samuel Langley's successful flights of his model Aerodromes Number 5 and Number 6 in 1896 led to plans to build a full-sized, human-carrying airplane. Langley's simple approach was merely to scale up the unpiloted Aerodromes to human-carrying proportions. This would prove to be a grave error, as the aerodynamics, structural design, and control system of the smaller aircraft were not adaptable to a full-sized version. Langley's primary focus was the power plant. The completed engine, a water-cooled five-cylinder radial that generated a remarkable 52.4 horsepower, was a great achievement for the time.

Despite the excellent engine, the Aerodrome A, as it was called, met with disastrous results, crashing on takeoff on October 7, 1903, and again on December 8. Langley blamed the launch mechanism. While this was in some small measure true, there is no denying that the Aerodrome A was an overly complex, structurally weak, aerodynamically unsound aircraft. This second crash ended Langley's aeronautical work entirely.

More information: Langley Aerodrome A

Nieuport 28C.1 at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Nieuport 28C.1
Appearing in mid 1917, the Nieuport 28C.1 was rejected by the French in favor of the sturdier, more advanced Spad XIII. Having no suitable fighter design of its own, the United States adopted the Nieuport 28 as a stop-gap measure before the much-in-demand Spad XIIIs could be made available from the French. It was the first fighter aircraft to serve with an American fighter unit under American command and in support of U.S. troops. It was also first type to score an aerial victory with an American unit.

The Nieuport 28 also made its mark in U.S. aviation history after the war. Twelve were employed by the U.S. Navy for shipboard launching trials from 1919 to 1921. Others were operated by the U.S. Army in the 1920s. In private hands, several were modified for air racing, and a number found their way into Hollywood movies. Still others became privately-owned airplanes flying in various sporting and commercial capacities.

More information: Nieuport 28C.1

Spad XVI at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Spad XVI
The Spad XVI was a two-seat version of the very successful single-seat Spad fighters of World War I, the Spad VII and the Spad XIII. The first Spad two-seater design to see front-line service was the Spad XI. The Spad XVI was an attempt to improve upon it by replacing the Spad XI's 220-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine with a 240-horsepower Lorraine-Dietrich 8Bb. The Spad XVI appeared in January 1918. It was slightly faster than the Spad XI, but had a lower ceiling and the same poor handling qualities. It offered no overall improvement. Nevertheless, approximately 1,000 Spad XVIs were built, ultimately equipping 32 French escadrilles.

An otherwise undistinguished aircraft, the Spad XVI in the Museum's collection is significant because of its association with Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell. He piloted this Spad XVI on many observation flights over the front lines during pivotal battles in the last months of the war.

More information: Spad XVI

Loening OA-1A "San Francisco"

Loening OA-1A San Francisco
Ready to learn more about aviation after 1920 and aircraft like the Loening OA-1A San Francisco? Take a look at our collection of interwar aircraft.

More information: Interwar Military Aviation