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Flight 100 - History 1979-1999

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By Max Kingsley-Jones

As the 1970s drew to a close, the aviation industry was undergoing major revolutions in structures and systems technologies, as manufacturers sought to maximise the benefits offered by new lighter, stronger materials being developed such as carbonfibre, and to make use of the increasing sophistication offered by computers.

Space Shuttle roll-out
The Space Shuttle featured regularly on our cover during the 1970s and 80s

But the immediate developments in the civil field followed Airbus's innovative A300 widebody twin, with Boeing's interpretation, the 767, entering service in 1982 and followed by Airbus's A310 "shrink" just over a year later.

Few realised at the time what a key role the Boeing twinjet - and to a lesser extent the tubby Airbus - was going to play in the redefinition of long-haul transoceanic operations.

The Buck Rogers "Spaceplane" era truly began on 12 April 1981, when NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia blasted off into orbit from Florida and made its return to Earth as a conventional - if somewhat unwieldy - aeroplane two days later. However, the Shuttle had to wait almost two decades - and suffer two tragic accidents - before it could finally fulfil the purpose for which it was truly designed- constructing and servicing an orbiting space station.

A skirmish in the South Atlantic in 1982 vindicated the British admiralty's decision to put some fixed-wing aircraft on the Royal Navy's anti-submarine carriers, with the Fleet Air Arm's Sea Harrier jump jets proving more than a match for the Argentinian air force's conventional Mirage and Skyhawk fighters during the Falklands campaign.

The US military's two new fighters, the F-16 and F/A-18, established themselves in the 1980s as the prime firepower for the air force and navy/marines, respectively. These so-called "electric jets", which had started out as competitors for the USAF's lightweight fighter competition, signalled the introduction of digital fly-by-wire (FBW) flight controls and it would not be long before an airframer would be looking to apply that technology to a commercial aircraft.

F-16E cutaway

The F-16 was one of the new wave of "electric jets" that debuted in the 1970s

CFM's quiet revolution

The CFM56 turbofan, developed by GE and Snecma, started life in the early 1970s with little prospect for success but ended up becoming one of the late 20th century's most significant civil engines, heralding new levels of efficiency and quietness for narrowbody jets amid increasingly stringent noise legislation. It helped Boeing refresh the 737, and was the cornerstone of Airbus's assault on the sector with its A320. The European "electric jet", with its advanced flightdeck and sidesticks driving FBW controls, represented Europe's triumphant charge to mass airliner production when it entered service in 1988.

A spike in oil prices during around this time saw a false dawn in new engine technology, with ultra-high-bypass engines, or propfans, being seriously evaluated. But concerns over the technology's reliability and costs, combined with a fall in fuel prices, meant it would be another 20 years before the industry would look again at such designs.

A raft of new generation turboprop airliners entered the fray in the mid-1980s produced by airframers across Europe as well as Brazil and Canada. Despite an initial order surge, only two turboprop programmes would emerge from carnage and consolidation created by the Canadair (now Bombardier)-initiated regional jet revolution that began in 1992, with most either leaving the market or collapsing.


Perhaps the biggest surprise from all this was the Embraer success story. The Brazilian airframer, which began the 1980s with just one airliner programme - the 19-seat Bandeirante - responded to the emerging regional jet market with a jet development of its Brasilia turboprop. Embraer took the gamble to enter the large regional jet sector with an all-new 70- to 100-seat family, and now boasts the sector's largest order backlog by far.

One of the most talked about military developments in the late 20th century was the emergence from total secrecy of the USA's two "black" aircraft programmes - the F-117A "Stealth" and B-2 flying wing. The existence of the former - a creation from the famous Lockheed "Skunk Works" - was finally confirmed by the Pentagon on 10 November 1988, ending more than a decade of speculation. Two weeks later, the B-2 had its public unveiling when it was rolled out in Palmdale, California.

Lockheed's F-117A "black jet" redefined the meaning of stealth when it broke cover in 1988

The 1980s saw the low-cost airline boom take hold in the USA, as carriers led by Southwest set a trend that would later spread to Europe with the likes of EasyJet and Ryanair jumping on the bandwagon. For the network carriers, the 1990s was an era of intense consolidation - albeit constrained by local ownership rules. Codeshare agreements led the way to franchise deals and ultimately the strategic global alliances that we now know so well.


The corporate aviation boom of the 1980s saw the emergence of a small group of powerful players, with Cessna among the first to capitalise with its ever-expanding Citation range. Bombardier came to the fore, using its purchase of Canadair as a stepping stone to the creation of a formidable product line after taking control of Learjet. Raytheon also grabbed a foothold through buying other people's programmes, namely the BAe 125 and Mitsubishi Diamond (renamed Beechjet 400) and built on this with creation of bespoke programmes, the Premier I and Hawker Horizon (now 4000).

The availability of a new small turbofan from BMW Rolls-Royce heralded the era of the ultra-long-range business jet - Gulfstream exploited the engine with its G-V development of the G-V, while Bombardier adopted the powerplant for the all-new Global Express.

When the war that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait broke out in 1991, there were some high-profile reputations at stake as military aircraft and weapons developed to fight the Cold War go to be used in anger - one of these being Europe's mud-mover, the Panavia Tornado, which had entered service in 1979.

The ensuing downturn created carnage as the airline industry saw what until then had been unprecedented - a decline in annual passenger traffic. Amid the ensuing meltdown, new long-haul products from Airbus and McDonnell Douglas were making their service debuts - the A330/A340 and MD-11. By the time Boeing's response was ready - its first FBW airliner the 777 - the boom times were on their way back. But it was all too late for McDonnell Douglas, which in 1997 yielded to its rival in the Pacific Northwest and disappeared into the history books.

The 777 redefined the benchmark set by Airbus for the "big twin" thanks to the ever-higher thrust levels being unlocked by the engine makers. Ultimately, this power development would see GE Aviation create the 115,000lb thrust (512kN) GE90-115, enabling the heaviest 777s to take off at weights of over 350t.


The Berlin Wall's destruction in 1989 led to a warming in relations between the former Cold War foes. This allowed the West to get a first-hand view of once-secretive military programmes such as Russia's latest-generation MiG and Sukhoi fighter families such as the MiG-29, Su-27 and Su-30, which became regular attendees at the international air shows as they sought export sales.

The new-found closeness also opened the way for partnerships on Russia's commercial programmes, with, for example, Rolls-Royce supplying engines to power the Tu-204 twinjet.

So as the 20th century due to a close, the industry was going from strength to strength and international relations appeared to be at an all-time high. Few could have predicted how civil aviation was about to be catapulted into the headlines in the worst way possible, and the consequences that would bring.

Max Kingsley-Jones joined Flight International in 1996 as commercial aviation editor. He was appointed deputy editor in 2007

Continue reading The Flight Century

Chocks away - 1909 - 1918
Britsh aviation made a slow start, but within the decade the country was making aircraft and the RAF had formed

Peace ... and war - 1919 - 1939
The inter-war years were a time of renaissance, innovation and record breaking and the creation of the air travel industry

Fight for the edge - 1939 - 1948
The Second World War brought aerospace innovation on both sides, but the sound barrier remained intact until 1947

Flying into a jet age - 1949 - 1958
Despite its problems, the Comet was a revolution in air transport. But this would be a decade of firsts, many of them British

Faster and higher - 1959 - 1979
The jet was king and the Jumbo Jet proved bigger was definitely better. Meanwhile, the Harrier showed the UK could still lead

Flight 100 - history of 21st century
As we entered the 21st century fuel efficiency and green design were beginning to take over from the quest for size and speed

Flight into the future - The next 100 years
We covered exciting, almost unbelievable, breathtaking developments in our first century of  publishing. What might feature on our pages in the next 100 years?

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