A fixed-wing aircraft is a heavier-than-air craft whose lift is generated not by wing motion relative to the aircraft, but by forward motion through the air. The term is used to distinguish from rotary-wing aircraft or ornithopters, where the movement of the wing surfaces relative to the aircraft generates lift. In the United States and Canada, the term airplane is used; in the rest of the English-speaking countries (including Ireland and Commonwealth nations), the term aeroplane is more common. These terms refer to any fixed wing aircraft powered by propellers or jet engines. The word derives from the Greek (aéras=air) and -plane. The spelling "aeroplane" is the older of the two, dating back to the mid-late 19th century. Some fixed-wing aircraft may be remotely or robot controlled.
Aviation history deals with the development of mechanical flight, from the earliest attempts in kite-powered and gliding flight, to powered heavier-than-air flight, and beyond.
Humanity's desire to fly possibly first found expression in China, where people flying tied to kites is recorded (as a punishment) from the 6th century CE. Subsequently, the first glider flight was demonstrated by Abbas Ibn Firnas in al-Andalus in the 9th century CE. Leonardo da Vinci's (15th c.) dream of flight found expression in several designs, but he did not attempt to demonstrate flight. It was in Europe during the late 18th century that serious attempts at flight would first take place.
Experiments with gliders laid a groundwork to build heavier than air craft, and by the early 20th century advancements in engine technology made controlled, powered flight possible for the first time. Since then, aircraft designers have struggled to make their craft go faster, further, fly higher, and be controlled more easily: Important factors involved in building an airplane are:
- Control: Initially gliders were controlled by moving the entire body (Otto Lilienthal) or warping the wings (Wright brothers). Modern airplanes use control surfaces such as ailerons and elevators. On some military aircraft these control surfaces are stabilized by a computer system to the extent that stable flight is not possible without the computer.
- Power: Aircraft engines have become lighter and more efficient, from Clement Ader's steam engine to piston, jet and rocket engines.
- Material: Initially made of canvas and wood, aircraft materials moved to doped fabric and steel tubing, all-metal monocoque construction as early as 1915, with similar all aluminum construction pioneered in 1918, and widely used (around WWII), and increasingly today, composites.
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