This edited article about aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 680 published on 25 January 1975.
Ever since the Wright brothers conquered gravity with a heavier-than-air machine in 1903, men have been seeking ways of building better and faster aircraft. It is a far cry from the historic, chain-driven plane, in which Orville Wright flew for 12 seconds, more than seventy years ago, to the mighty jets of today. But the intervening years have been marked by many achievements which have brought aircraft to their present peak of perfection.
One of the most remarkable of these has been the introduction of swept wings. Early aircraft either had single or double layers of wings (biplanes or monoplanes) and while these created buoyancy they also limited the speed at which the plane could fly.
With the development of more powerful engines, the need arose for aircraft to be designed which could remain stable at very high speeds.
The swept wing was the answer to this. Sweepback, as the design is termed, minimises the effects of the shock waves that build up when an aircraft reaches the speed of sound.
Swept-back wings had been experimented with as far back as 1930, as can be seen from the shape of the Granger Archaeopteryx. During the Second World War, the Miles’ Dragonflies had swept wings or, to be more specific, a swept tail which was called a tandem wing.
Since the war, most high speed aircraft have been built with swept-back wings, and greater and greater speeds have been attained. Airliners which fly at over 600 miles an hour and bombers which whine through the heavens at twice the speed of sound are part of today’s aviation scene. Swept-back wings, allied to the aircraft’s overall design and the power of its engines, have made this achievement possible.
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