Just as computers have affected virtually every aspect of modern life they have also had a major impact on aviation. Computers are now used in all parts of aviation: to design airplanes, to control them in flight, and to ensure that they reach their destinations safely and on time.
Determining when computers first took flight depends in part upon one's definition of a computer. A little more than a decade after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, the brilliant U.S. engineer Elmer Sperry adapted gyroscopes to electric and pneumatic control systems connected to an airplane's flight controls. This device, soon named an autopilot, could hold a plane level and on a specific course when the pilot took his hands off the controls.
Computers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) first used calculating machines in the 1930s to aid researchers in their work, sometimes to perform complicated calculations of airflow over airfoils. Furthermore, wind tunnel facilities often employed groups of women, who were sometimes referred to as "computers," whose sole job was to perform mathematical calculations concerning airflow.
By the 1950s, as IBM developed better calculating and tabulating machines for office use, more and more powerful computers were pressed into service to assist in number crunching the results of wind tunnel tests and in trying to predict some of the results before actual models were placed into wind tunnels. Computers and wind tunnels both had an impact on each other: More powerful computers allowed designers not only to process wind tunnel test results better and faster, but to determine some of those test results before a model was even built, and wind tunnel data allowed designers to develop better programs for their computers to predict airflow.
An important early computer, not only for aviation but for computers in general, was the Whirlwind computer started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1944. Whirlwind was a flight simulator. It was the first computer to respond immediately to actions taken by its operator. Previous computers simply took inputs, made calculations and eventually produced an output, sometimes hours later. But Whirlwind responded in "real time."
Aircraft during the 1950s and early 1960s also carried analog computers as part of their radar equipment. These were used to provide targeting information for guns and missiles. The Heads Up Display (HUD) that projected information onto a piece of glass in front of the pilot relied upon computer input to help the pilot aim his guns or select his weapons.
By the 1980s, computers had become so powerful that for some applications, they actually began replacing wind tunnels entirely. This saved tremendous amounts of money. Aeronautical engineers began developing advanced computer programs to conduct computational fluid dynamics (CFD) experiments.
The first computers to fly were primitive mechanical devices used to control planes in flight. Airplane and missile designers kept improving these systems, which enabled them to do new things. The German A4 (V-2) rocket of World War II used an early computer control system. The Canadian CF-105 Arrow interceptor airplane, which flew in March 1958, was the first aircraft to use an analog computer not as an autopilot but as a means of improving the flyability of the aircraft. The Arrow's computer was used to reduce the plane's tendency to yaw back and forth in flight. The U.S. spacecraft such as Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo all had computer flight control systems.