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The Bird Is on the Wing: Aerodynamics and the Progress of the American Airplane (Centennial of Flight Series) [Kindle Edition]

James R. Hansen

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Book Description

The airplane ranks as one of history’s most ingenious and phenomenal inventions—and surely one of the most world-shaking. How ideas about its aerodynamics first came together and how the science and technology evolved to forge the airplane into the revolutionary machine it became is the epic story James R. Hansen tells in The Bird Is on the Wing. Just as the airplane is a defining technology of the twentieth century, aerodynamics has been the defining element of the airplane.

Hansen provides an engaging, easily understandable introduction to the role of aerodynamics in the design of such historic American aircraft as the DC-3, X-1, and 747. Recognizing the impact individuals have had on the development of the field, he conveys not only a history of aircraft technology, but also a collective biography of the scientists, engineers, and designers who created the airplanes.

From da Vinci, whose understanding of what it took to fly was three centuries too early for practical use, to the invention of the airplane by the Wright brothers, Hansen explores the technological matrix from which aeronautical engineering emerged. He skillfully guides the reader through the development of such critical aerodynamic concepts as streamlining, flutter, laminar-flow airfoils, the mythical “sound barrier,” variable-sweep wing, supersonic cruise, blended body, and much more.

Hansen’s explanation of how vocabulary and specifications were developed to fill the gap between the perceptions of pilots and the system of engineers will fascinate all those interested in how human beings have used aerodynamics to move among, and even beyond, birds on the wing.

Product Description


." . . a splendid overview of the R&D processes that characterized the evolution of American aerodynamics and aviation. The brevity and high readability of this study will make it an especially welcome addition to the literature on the history of flight. The author's background in writing NASA aeronautical history also shines through in the quality of the sources cited. Hansen has clearly written for the general reader, and has eminently succeeded in constructing an informative narrative. The author has done a marvelous job of covering a considerable amount of territory, but has kept the narrative within bounds. The author's depth of knowledge about the subject illuminates the entire book. Bravo."--Roger Bilstein, University of Houston-Clear Lake

About the Author

James R. Hansen, a former NASA historian, teaches the history of science and technology and the history of flight at Auburn University. He has written a number of works in aviation history, including "Engineer in Charge" and "Spaceflight Revolution. "He holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.Hansen has been chosen as the authorized biographer of Neil Armstrong, for a book to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2005.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 6495 KB
  • Print Length: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Texas A&M University Press (7 Nov. 2003)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B005NI4OII
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding History of Aerodynamics R&D in America 4 April 2006
By Roger D. Launius - Published on
James R. Hansen, a friend and colleague on the faculty at Auburn University, has fundamentally altered the landscape of the history of aviation with this exceptionally significant study of the evolution of aerodynamics. This study began as the introduction to a multi-volume documentary history of aerodynamics research in the United States sponsored by the NASA History Program, the first volume of which ("The Wind and Beyond: A Documentary Journey into the History of Aerodynamics in America," NASA SP-2003-4409, 2003). This book is a revision of the introductory essays from that documentary work, and in itself offers an outstanding appraisal of this aspect of twentieth century engineering.

"The Bird is on the Wing" is an important statement of the evolution of aerodynamic research and development (R&D) and how it created the modern aircraft. Hansen focuses on key episodes to the development of the airplane, which he calls the defining technology of the twentieth century. And if the airplane was the defining technology of the last century, aerodynamics was the defining element of the technology, a fact Hansen well establishes in the first chapter. From there he explores the birth of the airplane, the quest for faster than sound speeds, the supersonic design revolution, the rise and fall of the supersonic transport (SST), the evolution of the jetliner, and recent and forthcoming developments.

This is a worthy introduction to the history of aerodynamics R&D in the United States. It may be read with profit alone, but also as a sophisticated analysis of the story told in a more linear fashion in John D. Anderson Jr.'s "A History of Aerodynamics: And Its Impact on Flying Machines" (Cambridge University Press, 1997). As editor of the "Centennial of Flight Series" in which "The Bird is on the Wing" appears, I am pleased to recommend it as an outstanding history that recounts the development of a major technology during the first century of flight.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a nice introduction 13 Jun. 2012
By Alexander T. Gafford - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
James Hansen's book is written as an introduction to the role of aerodynamics in the development of American aviation and as such is a useful beginning point. The introduction makes the quite reasonable case that aerodynamics defines the usefullness and characteristics of the airplane. The first chapter takes us to the Wright brothers, concentrating on their problem solving skills. This material is dealt with in reasonably short books by Anderson and Jakab but if new to the reader is covered with clarity and brevity here. The second chapter covers what the author calls the reinvention of the airplane, particularly in the decade 1928 to 1938 and points out the influence not only of general technological advancement but the real beginning of influence of mathematical aerodynamics on aircraft design. Of particular note is the way Hansen brings out the critical inter-relationship between the various strands of progress in this area, making clear some developments could not have happened without others being made at the same time. In the fourth chapter on supersonic design he makes clear how the aerodynamic issues were addressed as movement was made from the work on high speed aerodynamics in the 1940s to the transonic and supersonic regimes. The aerodynamic problems were severe and obviously unprecedented and Hansen makes clear how they were solved. The next chapter on the SST makes apparent what happens when aerodynamics cannot solve the economic problems posed and does echo some of the baffled feeling of those who knew how a big aeroplane could fly at Mach 3 and didn't understand why it wasn't wanted. The penultimate chapter on the continual development of the modern jet liner from its 707 archetype is quite interesting and takes us back to the second chapter as again many strands of progress are brought together to create a highly refined and efficient vehicle. The last chapter on the future of flight is not the strongest as it suffers somewhat from its decade old perspective.

All in all, a good book to have read, though perhaps not in the class of Anderson "A History of Aerodynamics". To be fair, it was not really intended to be in that class. A number of points should be made. The author apparently took to heart the maxim that each mathematical equation in a book reduces the sales by another 10% because there is not one in the book. I don't know that makes it easier to understand, though maybe it does. Secondly, since this was written as part of a NASA history project it highlights the work done at the NACA and its successor NASA, perhaps at the expense of aerodynamic progress made at private companies. Lastly, though there are a fair number of quite good photographs there are no illustrative diagrams explaining the aerodynamic concepts being explained. There are good end notes with some interesting asides and a rather complete secondary source bibliography.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent 28 Dec. 2010
By Goody - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
After just finishing the book myself, I would say that overall it's worth reading. However, at the very minimum a basic standing in aeronautics is required. The main concentration of the text is on the pre Wright and sonic flight eras. But it also goes into mildly how some of the basic concepts where found/formulated. The book itself, mentions that it's a precursor to a series of in-depth books due to come out, so the basic theme is not an in-depth and all encompassing material but to merely breeze over most of the big name ideas. It gleams over the past 100 years or so of aviation in a brevity 220 pages of paper. I would say that the book is worth the money if the reader has a understanding of aeronautics and once to be able to have readable and not a text book.
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