Military Aviation: Key Innovations

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Fly-by-Wire and the Flight Control Computer

With the advent of modern computers and electronics, aircraft designers were able to do away with mechanical control systems and replace them with computer-assisted electrical linkages. Pilots can now tell the system what they want the airplane to do, and the computer figures out how to make it happen. "Fly by Wire" systems - such as the one first used in the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon - can make thousands of automatic corrections a second, allowing for the design of inherently unstable airplanes that would be difficult or impossible for human pilots to control on their own. Without fly-by-wire, stealth planes like the F-117 and B-2 would have a hard time staying in the air.

Reconnaissance Planes

As the "Iron Curtain" fell across Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, the United States began searching for ways to peek behind it. Kelly Johnson, head of Lockheed's Advanced Development Projects Unit ("Skunk Works"), created a series of advanced, high-flying reconnaissance planes to photograph Russian armaments. The U-2 was a high-powered glider that could fly at a then-unheard-of 70,000 feet, above Soviet interceptors, radar and missiles. The SR-71 was a revolutionary titanium-skinned plane that had a top speed of over 2000 miles an hour. It is still the fastest active-service aircraft ever built - and during more than three decades of service, it is known to have outrun 4000 enemy missiles without a single combat casualty.


The ability to remain undetectable is an invaluable advantage on the battlefield - nowhere more so that in the air. Enter Stealth technology. "Stealth" refers to a wide variety of design techniques - from the shape of an aircraft to the special paint that covers it to the "hidden" exhaust nozzles - that are all designed to render an aircraft as invisible to radar as possible. Aircraft like the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the F-22 Raptor advanced tactical fighter have radar cross-sections (RCS) hundreds of times smaller than their non-Stealthy peers, greatly enhancing their ability to penetrate enemy airspace undetected, hit their targets and get home safely.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

The final step in the design of fighter aircraft could very well be the elimination of the pilots, replacing them with computers and/or remote-controlled guidance systems. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) take the pilots out of harm's way, eliminate the need for a cockpit and safety equipment, and allow the warplane to carry out maneuvers that generate G-forces no human being could withstand. Modern Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) like the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk are only the beginning. In a few decades, say many experts, the skies will belong to the machines - and the next flying ace could well be a computer processor.

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Parts One and Two air: Wed, Nov. 8th, 9-11pm
Parts Three and Four air: Wed, Nov. 15, 9-11pm

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