The Bird Is on the Wing: Aerodynamics and the Progress of the American Airplane

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Texas A&M University Press, 2004 - 273 pages
The airplane ranks as one of history's most ingenious and phenomenal inventions--and surely one of the most world-shaking. How ideas about its aerodynamics first came together and how the science and technology evolved to forge the airplane into the revolutionary machine it became is the epic story James R. Hansen tells in The Bird Is on the Wing. Just as the airplane is a defining technology of the twentieth century, aerodynamics has been the defining element of the airplane.

Hansen provides an engaging, easily understandable introduction to the role of aerodynamics in the design of such historic American aircraft as the DC-3, X-1, and 747. Recognizing the impact individuals have had on the development of the field, he conveys not only a history of aircraft technology, but also a collective biography of the scientists, engineers, and designers who created the airplanes.

From da Vinci, whose understanding of what it took to fly was three centuries too early for practical use, to the invention of the airplane by the Wright brothers, Hansen explores the technological matrix from which aeronautical engineering emerged. He skillfully guides the reader through the development of such critical aerodynamic concepts as streamlining, flutter, laminar-flow airfoils, the mythical "sound barrier," variable-sweep wing, supersonic cruise, blended body, and much more.

Hansen's explanation of how vocabulary and specifications were developed to fill the gap between the perceptions of pilots and the system of engineers will fascinate all those interested in how human beings have used aerodynamics to move among, and even beyond, birds on the wing.


The Winding Path to the Wright Brothers
Reinventing the Airplane
Breaking the Sound Barrier
The Supersonic Design Revolution
The Rise and Fall of the SST
The Progress of the Jetliner
The Future of Flight
Selected Bibliography

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Page 33 - From the time we were little children my brother Orville and myself lived together, played together, worked together and, in fact, thought together. We usually owned all of our toys in common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions and discussions between us."23 Without this creative synergism, it is impossible to imagine them inventing the airplane.
Page 3 - A defining technology develops links, metaphorical or otherwise, with a culture's science, philosophy, or literature; it is always available to serve as a metaphor, example, model or symbol. A defining technology resembles a magnifying glass, which collects and focuses seemingly disparate ideas in a culture into one bright, sometimes piercing ray.
Page 34 - My observation of the flight of buzzards leads me to believe that they regain their lateral balance, when partly overturned by a gust of wind, by a torsion of the tips of the wings.
Page 17 - A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law, which instrument it is within the capacity of man to reproduce with all its movements, but not with a corresponding degree of strength, though it is deficient only in the power of maintaining equilibrium. We may therefore say that such an instrument constructed by man is lacking in nothing except the life of the bird, and this life must needs be supplied from that of man.
Page 23 - The knowledge that the head of the most prominent scientific institution of America believed in the possibility of human flight •was one of the influences that led us to undertake the preliminary investigations that preceded our active work. He recommended to us the books which enabled us to form sane ideas at the outset. It was a helping hand at a critical time, and we shall always be grateful.
Page 5 - Administration); the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in...
Page 18 - The air surrounding birds is above thinner than the usual thinness of the other air, as below it is thicker than the same, and it is thinner behind than above in proportion to the velocity of the bird in its motion forwards, in comparison with the motion of its wings towards the ground; and in the same way the thickness of the air is thicker in front of the bird than below, in proportion to the said thinness of the two said airs.

About the author (2004)

James R. Hansen, a former NASA historian, teaches the history of science and technology and the history of flight at Auburn University. He has written a number of works in aviation history, including Engineer in Charge and Spaceflight Revolution. He holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University. Hansen has been chosen as the authorized biographer of Neil Armstrong, for a book to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2005.

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