An aircraft is a machine that is able to fly by gaining support from the air. It counters the force of gravity by using either static lift or by using the dynamic lift of an airfoil, or in a few cases the downward thrust from jet engines.
The human activity that surrounds aircraft is called aviation. Crewed aircraft are flown by an onboard pilot, but unmanned aerial vehicles may be remotely controlled or self-controlled by onboard computers. Aircraft may be classified by different criteria, such as lift type, aircraft propulsion, usage and others.
Main article: History of aviation
See also: Timeline of aviation
Flying model craft and stories of manned flight go back many centuries, however the first manned ascent – and safe descent – in modern times took place by hot-air balloon in the 18th century. Each of the two World Wars led to great technical advances. Consequently, the history of aircraft can be divided into five eras:
Pioneers of flight, from the earliest experiments to 1914.
First World War, 1914 to 1918.
Aviation between the World Wars, 1918 to 1939.
Second World War, 1939 to 1945.
Postwar era, also called the jet age, 1945 to the present day.
Methods of lift
Lighter than air – aerostats
A hot air balloon in flight
Main article: Aerostat
Aerostats use buoyancy to float in the air in much the same way that ships float on the water. They are characterized by one or more large gasbags or canopies, filled with a relatively low-density gas such as helium, hydrogen, or hot air, which is less dense than the surrounding air. When the weight of this is added to the weight of the aircraft structure, it adds up to the same weight as the air that the craft displaces.
Small hot-air balloons called sky lanterns date back to the 3rd century BC, and were only the second type of aircraft to fly, the first being kites.
A balloon was originally any aerostat, while the term airship was used for large, powered aircraft designs – usually fixed-wing. In 1919 Frederick Handley Page was reported as referring to "ships of the air," with smaller passenger types as "Air yachts." In the 1930s, large intercontinental flying boats were also sometimes referred to as "ships of the air" or "flying-ships". – though none had yet been built. The advent of powered balloons, called dirigible balloons, and later of rigid hulls allowing a great increase in size, began to change the way these words were used. Huge powered aerostats, characterized by a rigid outer framework and separate aerodynamic skin surrounding the gas bags, were produced, the Zeppelins being the largest and most famous. There were still no fixed-wing aircraft or non-rigid balloons large enough to be called airships, so "airship" came to be synonymous with these aircraft. Then several accidents, such as the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, led to the demise of these airships. Nowadays a "balloon" is an unpowered aerostat and an "airship" is a powered one.
A powered, steerable aerostat is called a dirigible. Sometimes this term is applied only to non-rigid balloons, and sometimes dirigible balloon is regarded as the definition of an airship (which may then be rigid or non-rigid). Non-rigid dirigibles are characterized by a moderately aerodynamic gasbag with stabilizing fins at the back. These soon became known as blimps. During the Second World War, this shape was widely adopted for tethered balloons; in windy weather, this both reduces the strain on the tether and stabilizes the balloon. The nickname blimp was adopted along with the shape. In modern times, any small dirigible or airship is called a blimp, though a blimp may be unpowered as well as powered.