What is Aeronautics? - Definition & History

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What is aeronautics? Learn the meaning of the term, and the history of aeronautics in general -- from the earliest flying machines, to hot-air balloons, to planes and rockets.

What Is Aeronautics?

If you ever dreamed of being an astronaut, flying in a fighter jet, working at NASA or even completing any kind of physics degree, you've been in some way thinking about aeronautics. Aeronautics is a word with Greek roots that combines the word for air and the word for navigation - so it is literally involved with the navigation of the air. Aeronautics is the study of the science, design, and manufacture of flying vehicles. This includes vehicles that fly only in the air and spacecraft that pass through the air to reach space.

What Is Included in Aeronautics?

Because the development of a flying vehicle of any kind is such a huge endeavor, aeronautics brings together a wide range of people and professions. You could be a technician running computers at NASA, an engineer designing the next rocket, a pilot learning to fly commercial aircraft, an astronaut, or even a physicist doing calculations for a particular space mission or studying the airflow over an airplane. All of these things are part of aeronautics.

Aeronautics includes:

  • Engineering
  • Aviation
  • Aerodynamics
  • Rocketry
  • Aeronautical science
  • Navigation
  • Technical flying skill
  • Construction

History of Aeronautics

For millennia humans have watched birds and dreamed of being able to fly themselves. Sometimes it was little more than a daydream, but others genuinely tried to make it happen. People have built wings and jumped from tall towers, often crippling or killing themselves in the process. But that goes to show how desperately people wanted to be able to fly.

Hot Air Balloons Were the Beginning

The Chinese were probably the most successful and used human carrying kites or gliders in ancient China. They also built hot-air balloons, flying toys and lanterns.

Balloons were among the earliest flying machines in the West as well. Roger Bacon was among the first European to come up with the concept for a hot air balloon in the 13th century. Leonardo da Vinci also had multiple designs for possible flying machines, though these weren't discovered until later. It wasn't until the 18th century that these ideas finally came to fruition when the French Montgolfier brothers completed the first manned (tethered) flight. However hot-air balloons weren't perfected until the middle of the 20th century.

Things Took Off with Planes

Then, humans began to look at planes to make their dreams of flight come true. George Cayley is often considered to be the father of the airplane, and his work is considered the start of modern aeronautics. He is particular famous for following the scientific method in his observations and experiments in flight, and he defined the four forces that affect a flying vehicle: wait, lift, thrust, and drag. He also came up with the idea for a fixed wing aircraft, flew manned and unmanned gliders, and improved human design of parachutes.

Drawing of the George Cayley glider
Drawing of the George Cayley glider

It wasn't until 1903 that the Wright brothers completed the first powered and controlled human flight - one of the most famous flights in history.

The Wright brothers plane
The Wright brothers plane

Technology Greatly Improves

This technology took off significantly during the world wars, spurred on by desire to out-innovate the enemy. The rapid improvements in aeronautic technology meant that humans reach the space-age in less than 60 years from the first powered flight.

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