It all began at the start of the 20th century, when two young men Wilbert and Orville Wright, better known as the Wright Brothers saw a dream. A dream of flying, higher than the birds, deeper in the skies. Not much time had passed, when they transformed their dream of flying into reality. On December 17th, 1903, the first prototype of an aeroplane took to the skies, and flew for almost 15 seconds. This idea of flight revolutionised the travel market, and gave birth to Modern Day Aviation. As the aviation market started to grow further, people, who initially were skeptical about traveling in a wood based flying machine, started to realise its true potential. They started to promote the idea of usage of aviation in different fields, including commercial travel and the military.
The idea of usage of flying machines in the military was not new, as previously a lot many times, hot air balloons were used for various jobs like intelligence gathering and observation. The first breakthrough for modern aviation into the military came in as early as in 1909, when the United States acquired Wright Class Airplane models for conducting aerial reconnaissance and surveillance ops. Soon, Italian and Turkish militaries too joined the elite group of militaries with flying machines, aeroplanes entered combat for the first time during the Italo-Turkish war of 1911. Turkey became the first nation to shoot down an aeroplane using a rifle, a feat which is unthinkable today. Italy was the first country to use an aircraft to drop bombs on their enemies, the Turks. The aeroplanes used were the classic wooden framed monoplanes.
But, the real potential of aerial combat was only realised after World War 1. WW1 saw an immense change in the roles of aircrafts, from reconnaissance to air superiority. Many aircrafts like Zeppelins(airships), Fokker, Bristol were brought into action for dropping bombs and carrying out recce. In order to counter enemy reconnaissance aircrafts to carry out their operations, researches on aircrafts capable of shooting down other aircrafts mid-air kick started, the first breakthrough came with the integration of a machine gun on the German Fokker Eindekker. The Fokker Eindekker was capable of firing ammo on a hostile aircraft without hitting its own propeller blades, this gave birth to the concept of Air to Air Combat, better knows as Dogfighting.
By the time World War 2 started, the wooden framed monoplanes and biplanes were replaced by the Streamlined Cantilever Monoplanes with metallic frames, which were far more agile and faster and came in with better weapon delivering capabilities. Some major features of the WW2 aircrafts were that they incorporated a full glass enclosed cockpit for the safety of the pilots, retractable landing gears, flaps, airframe modifications that brought them extra maneuverability and stability etc. The British Hawkers, Spitfires and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 were the aces of air combat at that time, since they carried the highest number of machine guns. The BF109 had an exceptional capability of firing explosive bullets, the cannons. The Americans and the Japanese had also developed carrier based fighter aircrafts like the SBD Dauntless, Grumman F6F Hellcat, Mitsubishi A6M, Nakajima B5N, AichiD3A etc. The attacks on Pearl Harbour(1941) saw the biggest fleet of carrier based fighters bombing an enemy position.
By the end of World War, the aces of bombing, the B-XX series of aircrafts had already entered into service. The B29 Superfortress/Bockscar were feared the most, and the fears turned into a nightmare, when they were used to drop the first atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Till date, the B series bombers have maintained the reputation of being the most ruthless bombers all over the world.
The Jet Engines brought with them a new era in the timeline of the aviation industry. Just after the WW2, came the next generation of aircrafts, better known as the “Transonics”. They used to travel at a speed roughly that of sound and incorporated turbo jet engines, radar gunsights, swept back wings for more agility and hydromechanical controls for faster and more reliable control mechanism. The F86 Sabres, Mig15s, Mig17s were the biggest names of that time. As we moved ahead in Jet engine technology somewhere in the midst of the 1950s, Supersonic aircrafts were also produced. The supersonics, due to their high maneuverability and faster speeds were capable of carrying out various jobs, and thus were given the name of “Multirole aircrafts”. The Mig21/23/27, F4/105, Mirage III/V were the most prominent of all the Supersonics. Newer roles for fighter aircrafts opened up, and now they were delivering weapons on the ground, dogfighting in the air, participating in anti-submarine warfare, and also conducting reconnaissance missions. But since their roles were increasing, many countries started to grow a threat perception against these monsters in the air, and invested in the research of better air defence systems, surface to air missiles, and air to air missiles, yet a significant breakthrough was still to be achieved in the radar technology.
As radar technology improved (late 1970s), fighter jets started incorporating high quality pulse radars in them, making their enemies vulnerable to getting shot down at larger distances. This generation, which incorporated the Pulse Doppler radars in them were called the “fourth generation fighter jets”. Most of the fourth gen. aircraft are still in use with many air forces around the world, but a great many of them with latest upgradations. Most prominent 4th gen. jet aircrafts are the Su27/30, Mig29, Mirage 2000, F15/16. The upgradations in these aircrafts made them jump up a fraction of a generation, into the 4++ Class. These upgradations were the incorporation of sensor fusions, glass cockpits, introduction of three dimensional thrust vectoring and canards, active electronically scanned array radars(AESA radars), stealth by reducing RCA and IR signature, supercruise ability etc. Most prominent of the 4++ gen. aircraft are the newer Sukhoi 30mki, Dassault Rafales, FA18, Eurofighter Typhoon etc.
The latest generation of fighter jets, better known as the “fifth generation fighter jets” are the aces of all, they are literally “ghosts” in the skies and are feared by all. The radar cross section area of these jets is so low that these can’t be tracked by regular radars. Their radar cross section is decreased by keeping all the surfaces at an unconventional angular position relative to each other, and by incorporation of carbon fibre technology in them, which both account for stealth. Moreover, in order to prevent detection by the virtue of their weapons, the gen. 5 aircrafts have the facility to store their armament inside the fuselage. They have next level of internal sensor fusion, along with the power of being a network centre in the air. They can transmit and receive every piece of information from the ground control, airborne radars and warning systems, other aircrafts and present the information to the pilots in a very compact form, so as not to increase their workload. The fifth generation jets are the aces of all wars, and are currently the rulers of the skies. They are feared by all, and they fear none, one will never want to be on the other side of these. Most prominent fifth generation aircrafts are the F35, F22, Su57 and the J20(supposedly). The first prototype of the AMCA – Advanced Multirole Combat Aircraft, fifth gen. fighter of IAF, is expected to take its first flight by 2025, and is expected to enter active service by 2028-2030.
The transformation of military aviation can be best understood by comparing the sets of images below.
Cockpit of the modern Era F22 Raptor vs Cockpit of the Soviet Era Mig21. Notice the difference in the sets of instruments.The analog instruments have been completely replaced by LED/LCD screen based digital instruments (Glass Cockpit).
Aviation has been the fastest growing industry in the world since its inception, the sky is the limit and believe me much more is yet to come.