Science and Invention

Wright Brothers

When did the first jet airplane take flight?

The aviation event took place in 1939 in Germany, just as World War II was beginning. The development of the jet aircraft was made possible by British inventor Frank Whittle (1907–1996), who built the first successful jet engine in 1937 (the Germans copied Whittle’s design). The engine propels an object forward by discharging a jet of heated air or exhaust gases rearward. Whittle’s company, Powerjets Limited, built the engine for Britain’s first jet plane in 1941, which became the model for early U.S. jets. During World War II, Great Britain, the United States, and Germany all employed jets (though in limited numbers) in their military operations.

After the war ended (1945), aircraft manufacturers began developing jet airliners. The innovator in the field was the De Havilland Aircraft Company (founded 1920), which produced the Comet, the first commercial jet. The aircraft was used by British Overseas Airways Corporation (now British Airways), which in 1952 initiated passenger flights. But flaws in the Comet’s structure were later discovered to be the cause of several midair explosions. The craft was redesigned, and in 1958 British Airways launched transatlantic passenger service using the improved Comets. U.S. jet airplane passenger service was introduced by American Airlines in 1959; the airline used the Boeing Company’s 707 to transport passengers from New York City to Los Angeles.


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