Stable or Unstable Aircraft

Indeed the Wrights' early opinion that aircraft should be inherently unstable became the consensus among aviators for several decades. The fighter aircraft of World War I were notoriously unstable and difficult to fly, but highly maneuverable. Learning to fly could be as dangerous (and possibly as heroic) as facing the enemy—during the war, more British pilots died in training than in combat.14 And indeed with these aircraft matured a new cadre of skilled pilots, and a new breed of war hero, characterized as much by technical skill as by innate courage.15 Jerome Hunsaker, one of the great early aeronautical engineers, referred to the ''almost universal prejudice among accomplished fliers against so-called 'stable aeroplanes.'''16

But during the 1920s, the consensus among aviators changed from favoring unstable airplanes to favoring stable ones. By 1935 the soon-to-be-legendary aircraft designer Clarence ''Kelly'' Johnson was writing ''the reasons why an airplane must be stable are more or less obvious''—indicating that engineers had changed their position. Another opinion captured the new consensus, that ''the machine should be stable, but not too stable.''17 What had changed, argues the engineer and historian Walter Vincenti, was human fatigue—as aircraft acquired greater range, and pilots flew longer flights, the effort of constantly keeping the aircraft in level flight became tiring, and pilot opinion shifted in favor of stable aircraft (although it also split as aircraft types evolved, deeming that fighter aircraft should be less stable than bombers and transports).

Why would the pilots give up their attachment to total control, to creating flight itself with their skills? In new opportunities open to them—long-distance flight, air mail runs, commercial passenger flights, and increasing influence in military circles— professional development would not depend on so-called stick-and-rudder skills alone.

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