100 years of aviation innovation

On the 100th anniversary of the first autopilot flight, Paolo Carmassi, president of Honeywell Aerospace – EMEAI, reflects on the firm’s century of work in commercial aviation

When you step into the modern airliner it is worth stopping to think how far aviation has come in the past 100 years. Today’s passenger jets use composite materials, are highly fuel efficient, generate up to half a terabyte of data every flight and use a combination of soft LED lighting, lower pressurisation and higher humidity levels to keep passengers safe and comfortable.

Roll back 100 years. On January 1 1914 the world’s first passenger flight took place between St Petersburg and Tampa in Florida. The one paying passenger completed the 21 mile journey in 23 minutes (a modern passenger jet can cover around 270 miles in the same time) and paid $400 for the privilege, equivalent to more than $5,000 in today’s money.

1914 was an important year for aviation for another reason too. It was the year that a piece of technology was introduced that would shape how we fly today and mark a pivotal moment in the history of one of the industry’s most important and innovative companies in the process. That technology was Lawrence Sperry’s gyroscopic stabilizer, the world’s first autopilot, and the company that created it would later become part of Honeywell Aerospace.

1914 – the Honeywell story begins

On June 18 1914, Sperry and his assistant demonstrated the capabilities of his new invention to a large crowd who had gathered on the banks of the River Seine by flying down the route of river while they each stood on one of their Curtiss C2 bi-plane’s wings, with only the autopilot at the controls. Lawrence Sperry’s company later became part of Honeywell which, through a mix of strategic acquisition and indigenous engineering, has played a leading role in shaping how we fly ever since.

Sperry Aerospace’s autopilot research was to eventually provide the basis for today’s advanced navigation systems, however, Sperry also produced many other important innovations. He enabled the world’s first guided missile flight in 1918, and in 1929 Lieutenant “Jimmy” Doolittle completed the first zero-visibility flight using a Sperry gyro at Mitchell Field, Long Island. In 1936, Sperry’s company received a patent for the first artificial horizon, a system that is still one of the most important indictors on today’s analogue cockpits.

Mass-market, long-haul travel

While an integral part of the Honeywell story, Sperry Aerospace is not the only of Honeywell’s legacy companies to feed into its long history of innovation in aviation. In the late 1930s, Cliff Garrett began experimenting with cabin pressurisation, eventually solving one of the biggest challenges in long-range military flight with the world’s first volume production of a cabin pressurisation system for the B-29 Superfortress. Garrett’s invention was to become the foundation for cabin pressurisation on all aircraft flying today.

As flights became longer and transcontinental travel had hit the mainstream, the 1950s saw Honeywell and its companies tackle a range of safety challenges that pilots were facing on these longer, more congested journeys. Bendix Radio (now part of Honeywell’s Bendix/King brand) was at the forefront of innovation during this time, bringing to market the world’s first practical en-route weather radar, the RDR-1. This was the start of a product line that Honeywell continues today with its latest weather radar, the RDR-4000 IntuVue 3D, capable of detecting turbulence from up to 60nm away, as well as being able to predict hazardous weather features, such as hail and lightning.

Spurred by people’s desire for air travel to a greater range of destinations, in 1963 Honeywell installed the Garrett 85 Series auxiliary power unit (APU) on the Boeing 727. The introduction of the APU meant that crews no longer had to rely on ground power while at airports, enabling airlines to expand their networks to include previously inaccessible destinations. By 1967, Honeywell had introduced the first APU with an integrated environmental control system to manage the cabin environment and keep passengers more comfortable. The system featured on the maiden flight of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 on August 29 1970 – an aircraft that made its last scheduled passenger service in December 2013 to the chagrin of many aviation enthusiasts.

Last year, Honeywell’s 131-9 family of APUs surpassed 100 million flight hours. It was this model that played an important role in “the miracle of the Hudson” in 2009, by providing the immediate power Captain “Sully” Sullenberger needed to maintain control of his A320 for a safe river landing after a flock of geese disabled both the aircraft’s main engines.

‘Out of this world’ innovation

Honeywell also played a role in man’s longest ever journey. On 20 July 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module onto the moon’s surface only 55 years after Sperry’s stunt on his Curtiss C2. Apollo 11 contained Honeywell displays and engine controls that have been present on every manned space flight since and are also on the International Space Station.

It wasn’t just in space that Honeywell was making history at this time. In the 1970s a growing demand for business aviation saw the Garrett TFE731 engine labelled “product of the year” by one prominent magazine group. It was a worthy winner too, as in 1976 the engine helped golfer Arnold Palmer break the around-the-world speed record with a time of 57 hours, 25 minutes in a Learjet 36. The aircraft averaged just over 400 mph during the flight, shaving close to 29 hours off the previous record.

It was also in the 1970s that Honeywell brought to market the world’s first flight management system (FMS), the TERN-100. The first truly automatic FMS, the TERN-100 was initially certified on the Boeing 727 in 1974, the 707 in 1975 and the 747SP in 1979. FMSs free crews to manage high-level cockpit tasks and contributes to a safer, more economical, fuel-efficient and timesaving flight. With the fuel crisis of the 1970s taking its toll on the industry, the arrival of the FMS brought renewed optimism among airlines that operations could easily become more fuel efficient and profitable in the short term.

Tackling aviation safety

During this same decade arguably the most important safety system in the history of aviation was invented. In 1974, the FAA mandated that all turbine and turbojet-powered aircraft must be fitted with a ground proximity warning system (GPWS), the brainchild of Honeywell engineer Don Bateman. Prior to Bateman’s GPWS, major airlines were losing about eight aircraft a year to controlled flight into terrain (CFiT) accidents. By 1980, there was a tenfold decrease in the rate of CFiT accidents among US carriers alone.

The original GPWS system monitored an aircraft’s height above ground using a radio altimeter and warned the pilot if a CFiT is imminent. Bateman and his team went on to pioneer the enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) in 1996, which augments the original GPWS with GPS positioning and an ever-growing terrain and obstacle database that today boasts well over 800 million flight hours.

Honeywell’s EGPWS database also provides the basis for several other key safety systems that are now commonplace on today’s commercial aircraft. For example, Honeywell’s SmartView synthetic vision system uses the database to provide pilots with a 3D digital map of the terrain around the aircraft, for navigating in low visibility.

In 2003, Honeywell introduced the world’s first runway awareness and advisory system (RAAS) – a technology which provides alerts to pilots to help guide them to the correct runway by using the EGPWS database. In its latest incarnation, SmartLanding/SmartRunway, Honeywell’s RAAS provides pilots with more than 20 alerts covering unstable approaches; insufficient runway length; long landings; and taxiway approaches. Nearly 2,500 in-service aircraft around the world are now equipped with RAAS or SmartRunway/SmartLanding.

When you consider the progress we have made since Sperry’s first demonstration of the autopilot 100 years ago, it is inevitable that over the next century technology will continue to play a central role in advancing air travel around the world. At Honeywell we look forward to playing our part in this evolution. The best is yet to come!

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