Flights of Fancy
Since before recorded history, humans have witnessed birds and bugs in flight and marveled at their innate ability to defy gravity. Over the long millennia, countless millions longed in vain to join these airborne creatures in being able to “slip the surly bonds of Earth,” as World War II pilot John Gillespie Magee, Jr. would later so poetically phrase it.
Early myths and legends of many cultures describe divine beings who would fly down to visit the earth from heavenly realms, some under their own power, others by the aid of bird-like wings. Ancient Greeks told the story of Daedalus who invented an apparatus made with eagle feathers fastened with beeswax. His son Icarus tested the contraption, but plunged to his death after he ignored his father’s counsel and flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax that was holding everything together.
The Persians had a legend of a king who flew on a throne hoisted by eagles, while China had stories of Emperors who performed various aerial feats thanks to wings, flying chariots, or even using giant-brimmed reed hats for a type of parasailing. Once the ancient Chinese had developed black powder, the world’s earliest explosive, and started to use it with rockets and fireworks, an artisan came up with a design for a rocket-propelled chair for the emperor, though it is likely that it was never built or tested by his royal highness.
Over the centuries, as tales of human flight via fantastic means were woven into literature and later science fiction with ever-increasing detail, so technology continued to advance, turning many such imaginative suppositions into solid realities.
The Wright Stuff
Before the first airplane ever took off, the earliest untethered manned flight was made using a hot air balloon over Paris, France in 1783. Joseph-Michel Montgolfier was watching laundry drying over a fire and noticed that sections of the clothing would puff up with air and smoke and rise. He began experimenting with balloons composed primarily of taffeta (a linen fabric made of silk), and recruited his brother, Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, to help him. The brothers soon partnered with a wallpaper manufacturer to create a balloon large enough to carry humans. It was made from taffeta coated with alum (an aluminum salt) to help fireproof it.
In mid-October 1783, Étienne Montgolfier became the first human to leave the earth in a tethered balloon flight, and physics teacher Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier became the second later that day. On November 21, 1783, de Rozier made the first free flight, accompanied by military officer François Laurent d’Arlandes. In a demonstration made for French King Louis XVI and other dignitaries—including visiting U.S. envoy Benjamin Franklin—the balloon traveled slowly for 25 minutes over Paris and covered approximately five-and-a-half miles.
While lighter-than-air flight using balloons continued to develop in the ensuing decades, heavier-than-air flight that would mimic gliding birds began to be conceptualized before the end of the century. In 1799, British engineer Sir George Cayley suggested the idea of what we would call an airplane today. He identified factors such as lift and drag and proposed a fixed wing flying machine that would have systems for control and propulsion. He flew an unmanned model glider in 1804 and by 1849 had constructed a type of glider (called a “governable parachute”) that carried a ten-year-old boy several yards through the air after launching from a hillside.
Cayley acknowledged that sustained flight couldn’t happen until a lightweight engine could be built to give a flying machine proper thrust to achieve lift. The first confirmed manned powered flight occurred in 1890 when Frenchman Clément Ader built and took off in an uncontrolled monoplane that flew about eight inches off the ground for over 150 feet. The next year, German Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal performed the first controlled manned flight in an unpowered glider.
The first sustained manned flight to combine a powered airplane with control by a pilot wouldn’t take place until after the turn of the century, when Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the Wright Flyer in an area just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers had been testing gliders since 1900, and finally built their famous aircraft in 1903 using spruce for straight components and ash wood for curved ones in the airframe, covering them with unbleached muslin to make them aerodynamic. The twin propellors were powered by a lightweight, custom-made 12-horsepower gasoline engine with a one-US-gallon fuel tank, and the craft used a three-axis control system to guide it. With Orville as pilot, the Wright Flyer traveled 120 feet on its 12-second flight on December 17, 1903.
Heavy Metal Takes Flight
While early 20th century aircraft showcased remarkable craftsmanship, the fact that they were constructed using lightweight wood with fabric coverings limited them in terms of structural strength and durability. By the time the first World War began in 1914, some aircraft designers had started to experiment with using metal for both the fuselage and the skin of airplanes.
The mid-1930s marked a significant shift in aircraft fabrication with metal construction become predominant. Aluminum alloys, such as duralumin, became the preferred choice of fabricators due to their strength-to-weight ratio and corrosion resistance. Iconic aircraft like the Boeing 247 and the Douglas DC-3 featured metal monocoque structures, in which the outer skin carried much of the structural load. This construction technique increased the aircraft’s structural integrity, enabling greater speeds and higher altitudes.
A revolution in aircraft manufacturing occurred when the Farnham Manufacturing Company of Buffalo, New York introduced its aircraft roll in 1940. Instead of continuing to craft the complex, tapering leading edges of airplane wings by hand, fabricators in major aircraft factories could use the Farnham rolls to produce wing edges in a fraction of the time. When the US entered World War II at the end of the following year, Farnham machines proved critical to the war effort.
From Jet Age to Space Age
The latter half of the 20th century witnessed a groundbreaking advancement in aircraft fabrication with the emergence of composites. Composites are materials made by combining two or more constituent materials, typically a reinforcing fiber and a matrix. Fiberglass and carbon fiber reinforced polymers (CFRPs) revolutionized the aerospace industry by providing strength, stiffness, and weight advantages over traditional materials.
The use of composites gained momentum in the 1970s, notably with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 XWB. These modern aircraft feature composite fuselages, wings, and control surfaces, resulting in substantial weight reduction and improved fuel efficiency. Composite materials also offered superior resistance to fatigue, corrosion, and impact, ensuring extended service life and reduced maintenance costs.
Alongside the adoption of composites, advancements in manufacturing techniques have further refined aircraft fabrication. Automated processes, such as Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining, robotic assembly, and additive manufacturing, have streamlined production and enhanced precision. CNC machining allowed for the precise shaping of metal and composite components, while additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, enabled the creation of complex structures with reduced waste.
As aircraft fabrication progresses into the future, research and development efforts continue to focus on pushing the boundaries of material science and manufacturing technology. Lightweight, high-strength materials like carbon nanotubes and graphene hold promise for further reducing weight and enhancing performance. Additive manufacturing techniques are expected to play an increasingly significant role in creating intricate aircraft components while minimizing material waste.
A New Revolution in Aircraft Fabrication
Following the end of World War II, the need for the Farnham aircraft rolls diminished, and the company eventually closed its doors, with its intellectual property passing through a series of buyouts and mergers. While its successors and some others produced a few copies of the famous rolls, demand for used versions of the originals began to grow among aircraft enthusiasts.
American company Revolution Machine Tools, already a producer of highly accurate high-tech plate rolls, press brakes, fiber lasers, and other machines used in aerospace fabrication projects, decided to step up to fill the void left when the original Farnham machines ceased production. The RMT F-Series rolls duplicate the functions of the Farnham rolls, while adding powerful new features that increase the ease and accuracy of production.
If you manufacture aerospace vehicles, whether they are small single-occupant airplanes or large booster rockets, please give Revolution Machine Tools a call today and talk to one of their machinery consultants about the solutions they can offer to you.