From Kitty Hawk to Flying Taxis: A Century of Aerospace Innovation
August 15, 2019
One day in 1903, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright changed forever the way we perceive our earthbound existence. Suddenly, ordinary humans could fathom a day when they could fly anywhere they wanted to go in a powered, heavier-than-air flying machine.
The Wright brothers’ first successful flight heralded a century of previously unimaginable aeronautical feats. Over the next 100 years, humans would walk on the moon, fly around the world at three times the speed of sound, and gain deep insights into the universe from the telescopic instruments of an extraterrestrial observatory.
As The Timken Company’s unofficial aerospace historian, Wayne Denny finds great satisfaction in cataloging the many ways that Timken has helped advance the cause of flight and space discovery.
This year, Timken purchased Diamond Chain, which thrilled Denny’s heart because the company played a significant role in the Kitty Hawk flight. The Wright brothers used Diamond Chain products for their bicycle shop, so they also used the company’s chains for their flying machines.
“That’s a lynch pin we had been missing,” he says. “We go all the way back to the foundations of rotorcraft. Now, with the purchase of Diamond Chain, we can also tie the company back to the Wright Flyer.”
Timken has been around since before the Wright brothers conducted their ground-breaking flight and has played a role in almost every aircraft since.
“You find Timken products throughout aircraft in early flight,” says Denny, a physicist by training who now covers global strategic marketing of precision items for Timken. “By the 1930s, Timken had about 240 bearings in the B-17 Flying Fortress—in the engines, the landing gear, the flaps, the struts. We became ubiquitous as the Allies in World War II looked for robust, rugged, durable bearing solutions.”
“That set us on the path to where we are today, manufacturing products for virtually every commercial plane that’s made,” he says. Timken produced bearings for the Douglas DC-3, which revolutionized commercial air travel, making it comfortable, reliable, and profitable as an industry.
The helicopter: Bringing a life-saving dream to life
Airplanes were just the beginning, however. The 1940s brought the development of the helicopter, which presented a major life-or-death challenge. “If a plane engine fails, you’re going to at least be going forward and you’ll land somewhere,” says Denny. “In a helicopter, you have one gear box. One thing that drives the blades. It’s very important that they keep moving.”
Timken engineers formed personal relationships with Igor Sikorsky and Frank Piasecki, the visionaries who developed the first and second functional helicopters. Sikorsky’s R-4 was the first helicopter to be sold in high volume. Because of its ability to hover as well as fly up, down, and sideways, both military and civil institutions used it for life-saving missions—a fact that brought Sikorsky much satisfaction.
“Each time a helicopter rescues someone in danger, we are bringing Igor Sikorsky’s dream to life,” says Denny.
The SR-71: Proof that our forebears knew what they were doing
Denny admits to having a special fascination with the legendary Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, in service with the U.S. Airforce from 1964 to 1998. The reconnaissance plane—kept out of the public eye for many years—was designed to fly above Mach 3. That’s three times the speed of sound. It carried no weapons—only cameras. “The SR-71’s sole defense tactic was to put the throttle down and go faster,” he says.
When Denny sees a Blackbird today, he imagines it coming in for a landing, glowing hot. “The SR-71 pushed the limits of what most people thought was possible.” Its 1976 airspeed record for air-breathing flight—2,193.2 miles per hour—still holds.
Guiding the first astronauts to the Moon
Timken has been involved in space flight since the early years, and later with several companies that also played roles, including the MPB Corporation, Philadelphia Gear, and Torrington. The guidance system that guided Apollo 11’s Lunar Exploration Module to the Moon’s surface worked like a charm, thanks to Timken bearings. NASA used the same system in 1970 to guide Apollo 13 astronauts safely back to Earth after its main guidance systems failed following an oxygen tank explosion.
“The fact that we were in the guidance system that took astronauts to the moon is pretty high on my list of favorite things ever,” says Denny.
Deep, decades-long customer partnerships
Another favorite memory, he says, involves watching the shuttle Atlantis launch in 2010 with his six-year-old daughter—and telling her about the Timken bearings that would help make sure the astronauts returned safely.
“In aerospace, we often deal with life-or-death matters,” says Denny. “I’ve found this brings out the best in people. Will the air circulation system work on someone’s spacesuit? Will the turbine perform at high speed, maximum temperature, full throttle? Will the helicopter gearbox operate even if the oil pressure drops? It must,” he says. “Those challenges act as a call to action and bring out a frankness and thoroughness that is shared in the community.”
By “community,” he means the Timken team, as well as customers. “When we go to market with somebody, we mean it,” he says. “We partner with our customers deeply.”
Denny remembers being introduced to his first Timken aerospace customer. “I asked him for some perspective on how our two companies work together,” he says. “He looked at me and said, ‘We’ve been in space flight together for as long as … as long as the U. S. has been in space.’”
“That’s a relationship I could understand,” he says.
Aerospace projects often take shape as long-term endeavors with an 8- to 10-year development cycle. “Projects that make it to production represent a long life cycle of product support opportunities,” says Denny. To add to Timken’s aerospace aftermarket capabilities, the company purchased Bearing Inspection Inc. (BII) in 2005. BII has been selling bearing inspection, reconditioning, and engineering services to the aerospace industry for more than 60 years.
Once a craft is in production, it can see decades of service. “The oldest commercial plane is a Boeing 737, made in 1970,” says Denny. “That plane is approaching 50 years of flying three to four times a day, which represents nothing less than an engineering marvel to me.”
It’s not only planes that need occasional service, however. In May 2009, astronauts embarked on a spacewalk—with mini power tools in hand—to make delicate repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope . Timken engineers helped develop the tools using a custom thin-section precision ball bearing that could withstand the extreme operating temperatures and vacuum of space. Today, the nearly 30-year-old telescope continues to send secrets of the universe back to Earth.
The Jetsons’ Orbit City : A reality in our lifetime?
Of course, most of the objects humans have launched out to space over the past sixty years orbit Earth without fanfare and make our daily lives easier in completely practical ways. “Timken has worked on GPS systems for a very long time,” says Denny. “We make very precise, long-lasting bearings that go into the gyroscopic stabilizers for many satellites.”
“I’m always amazed at how big an impact GPS has on so many facets of life,” he says. “Now, when you think about flying drone taxis, I’m sure GPS will be a major contributor to that.”
Wait … flying taxis?
Yes, Denny says, it’s safe to say Timken is engaging in the early stages with customers who are developing Jetson-like flying drones. One day soon, they might make it possible for cities to grow upward as well as sideways.
“It’s fascinating, because I don’t know what’s going to happen first—a viable drone taxi, or the infrastructure to support it,” he says. Flying taxis would require ground-based radar systems, regulations, and support. “When we look at megacity crowding and the need for safe, efficient travel, we all have far more to do,” he says.
The Bell Nexus flying taxi incorporates electric hybrid propulsion systems turning a 45-minute drive into a 10-minute flight.
Huge growth awaits
Whatever form the future of aerospace takes, Denny sees it as a continuing, positive force—bringing people together across cultures and space to learn from each other.
“Huge growth awaits us,” he says. Boeing and Airbus expect to build over 44,000 planes in the next two decades, while Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac) is on the rise and will be delivering new commercial planes to China’s market in the same time period.
“That growth will change people’s experience of the world—how well they understand how small the world is, and how similar we all really are,” says Denny.
He looks forward to working with Timken customers as they imagine, develop, and produce the flying machines of the 21st century. “We’re here to be partners throughout the process, to help lift their products up, and to make the difficult seem very easy,” he says.