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Home > Blog > Evolution Of Light Aircraft Design Technology

The Evolution of Light Aircraft Design and Technology

Posted 15 May 2023

Light Aircraft Design

Let’s first explore the evolution of their design and technology. Keep reading below to learn more.

Light aircraft have a special place in every aviator’s heart because of their importance in aviation history. Before there were 600,000 kg jumbo jets, there was the humble fixed-wing light aircraft that made it all possible.

The reason why light aircraft are so beloved by every pilot is that they are extremely fun to fly. Unlike large aircraft that are designed for fixed routes and transportation, flying light aircraft offers a level of freedom and control that is truly unmatched.

But before we get into the specifics of light aircraft, let’s first explore the evolution of their design and technology. Keep reading below to learn more about the aircraft that enabled humans to fly!

Defining Light Aircraft

Most people think that the primary characteristic of a light aircraft is only its comparatively lightweight, but that isn’t accurate! Light aircraft are known for three things:

  • Size
  • Performance
  • Weight
  • Size

Light aircraft are compact and relatively smaller in size than various other commercial aircraft. These aircraft are designed to be a miniaturised version of larger aircraft; therefore, they have a smaller cabin and a more compact fuselage.

There are primarily two types of light aircraft designs: fixed-wing and flex-wing aircraft. Fixed-wing aircraft are known for sharing some of the onboard equipment found in commercial planes. This equipment can range from advanced radios to radar, and other important instruments that can help pilots train.

Fixed-wings have a compact cabin that can seat anywhere from 2-6 people at a time. These aircraft are built with efficiency in mind which is why they aren’t as roomy as larger planes, but their compact size makes them very aerodynamic and nimble in the skies!

Flex-wing aircraft, on the other hand, are even smaller! These aircraft have a simple design that usually features a trike. The wings on these aircraft aren’t like the ones found in most fixed-wing aircraft. They are made from fabric, which allows flex-wing aircraft to be very compact and efficient.


Even though light aircraft are powered by a high-output single engine, the performance of these planes is understandably less than what you will traditionally find in larger aircraft.

While light aircraft can soar across the skies, they usually don’t go beyond the top speed of 120-220 knots. However, what you lose in speed, you gain in control! Part of the reason why light aircraft are the first choice for many pilots is due to how well these aircraft fly! Pilots can perform various aerobatics using light aircraft, and their controls are also quite responsive due to their low weight and size.


Finally, an important characteristic of light aircraft is that they can weigh anywhere from 1600 to 3000 kgs, which is considerably less when you compare these numbers to larger aircraft that can be 100 times heavier.

Some light aircraft, like flex-wings, can weigh even less! Flex-wing aircraft weigh around 450 to 600 kg depending on the size, but you can also find some heavier flex-wing models.

History of Light Aircraft – 18th Century

Now that we have defined what light aircraft are, let’s take a look at their history.

Light aircraft were naturally the first type of aircraft to be built for sustainable flight. We used the word “naturally” here because there was virtually no other way to go about flying than to build an open cockpit with wings attached to each side.

This simple design was practical and was the first choice for the Wright brothers too – but to understand how we got to the Wright brothers; we must start at the beginning.

Throughout early history, flying was only possible in one’s imagination. People used to look at birds and imagine building a set of wings that could be used to lift a human from the surface, but of course, there was a lot more work that needed to be done before this dream was achieved.

The problem of flight didn’t just require engineering, but we also needed to understand the science behind flying as well. This is why throughout history, flying was merely a thought exercise that never really got out of blueprints - that is until the 18th century!

During the 18th century, science and engineering were progressing at full steam and many people wanted to solve the problem of flight using science first. After all, how can you build an aircraft without first understanding the physics and science behind it?

This is where Daniel Bernoulli comes in. A Swiss mathematician and genius, Bernoulli was one of the first people to pull multiple ideas together to create a unique principle that the scientific community termed the “Bernoulli Principle”.

According to this principle, wind, which was previously thought of as gasses in motion was reimagined as a fluid. Bernoulli discovered that when air is in motion, it has very interesting effects on the bodies it interacts with. For example, when air is static, i.e., not moving, it has a certain pressure. However, when air is flowing, especially at faster speeds, it creates a low-pressure zone.

This discovery was ground-breaking at the time and is what enabled flight! Using this principle, it was later discovered that if you build a specially designed body that allowed air to travel faster on one side and slower on the other, then you can achieve lift! This specially designed body was later termed to be “aerodynamic”.

Aerodynamics and The Invention of the Combustible Engine– 19th Century

Further investigation into aerodynamic designs revealed that there was indeed a way to build an aircraft with a specially designed set of wings that could force the wind to lift the aircraft using Bernoulli’s principle.

For example, an aerodynamic wing with a design that allowed for air to flow faster above would create a low-pressure zone, while the slow-moving air at the bottom would create a higher-pressure zone that would eventually lift the plane from below.

Of course, this was just the tip of the iceberg for achieving lift! To achieve this speed, we also had to build a machine that could propel the aircraft forward in a controlled way.

This is where engineering comes in.

Steam engines were thought to be the natural choice for all types of mechanical contraptions. However, there were a few inherent flaws with the design of this engine. First, steam engines were generally too big to fit in any light aircraft.

Since these engines were powered using steam, they had to have multiple connected sections, and miniaturising these sections was impossible without significantly lowering the output of the engine.

Luckily, the engineering community was already working on a next-generation engine called the combustible engine.

Instead of steam, these engines worked using the power of explosions. That’s right! If you look into the cross-section of a combustible engine while it is operating, you will realise that it is just a machine that produces tiny and highly controlled explosions that are used to propel a set of levers and gears to produce mechanical power.

The benefit of this engine was that it was inherently small and very efficient. Just fill in the gas, turn the crank, and the engine would start working until the kill switch was engaged. These engines were a natural fit for smaller aircraft and could easily fit at the front of the aircraft without bogging down its weight.

The First Sustainable Light Aircraft Design – 20th Century

By the 20th century, the engineering community had everything they needed to create the first practical light aircraft design.

The first few designs of light aircraft were quite rudimentary and above everything else, they were intended to be flown without humans on it. These were usually test aircraft that were quite unstable and prone to crashing.

This is why they were usually tied down to the ground and were flown for only a brief moment before they were brought back down. However, during the late 1890s, two brothers took notice of these designs and sought to create something meaningful and revolutionary.

The Wright brothers were not formally engineers, since they didn’t have formal training or a degree, but they were extremely keen on details and had quite a lot of experience in building contraptions. Instead of going the same route as other engineers, the brothers wanted to use a practical approach to solve the problem of flight.

This is where they started to put all the pieces together, just as Bernoulli did when he came up with his principle. The brothers decided to solve two problems instead of one. The first problem was related to sustainable flight, and the other was related to control.

After tinkering with various designs and perfecting the aerodynamics of aircraft, they were able to finally create something meaningful. Their initial design was a fixed-wing plane with longitudinal control which was powered using a high-output combustible engine.

The brothers kept improving the design of their aircraft and performed numerous tests until they were confident enough to fly their invention on their own – and in 1903, the brothers arranged the first public test flight and successfully flew their plane, proving that humans were never meant to stay grounded!

1920s and 1930s

A few decades after the first flight, engineers started to work virtually nonstop in making aviation the future of mankind. During the 1920s, light aircraft evolved quickly owing to the introduction of new and lighter materials like aluminium.

At the same time, engine technology was also catching up and improving which led to the creation of even smaller, lightweight, and highly efficient aircraft engines.

During the 1930s, aviation was at full steam and the world also got introduced to one of the most iconic aircraft in aviation history, the Piper J-3 Cub which was known to be the quintessential aircraft of that era.

Owing to the growing popularity of aircraft, the 1920s and 30s era also saw a marked increase in aviation clubs which were starting to open up around the region to help people experience the thrill of flight!

Pre and Post War

During World War II, the focus of aviation was pulled from general applications and enthusiasts, as aircraft were seen as key vehicles that could be used in war. This led to the establishment of many private companies that poured huge amounts of money into research and development for better and more efficient aircraft.

This is where aircraft designs saw a huge boost in their evolution as many technologies developed during this period paved the way for extremely nimble, efficient, and unfortunately, deadly aircraft.

The use of aircraft was prevalent during World War II and was seen as a pivotal technology that was indispensable for military operations. Fortunately, after the war, the evolution of light aircraft continued – but this time the focus was shifted towards transport.

This is when we started to see a big leap in aircraft design. Engineers took the same concept of light aircraft but scaled it to accommodate the transportation of both humans and materials. It was during this time, that the modern aviation industry began to take shape.

Modern Aviation

Today, aviation is full of technological marvels and extremely slick and efficient aircraft designs. In the modern world, aviation is heavily regulated which has enabled this industry to be one of the safest ways to travel.

Light aircraft continue to play a major role in aviation, as they are the primary way for pilots to learn how to fly. Today, you can find several types of light aircraft like gliders, flex-wing aircraft, ultralight aircraft, and more – there is truly no better time to get into aviation than now! There are even more flying clubs now than ever, which makes it perfect for people who love aviation to try their hand at flying aircraft on their own.

Many people forget that at the base of all this modern progress, lies the humble light aircraft, which enabled humans to not just fly but to evolve as a species. Light aircraft designs helped pave the way for transport and even space travel because once we understood the science behind exploring the skies, humans embarked on the next frontier: space!


Sherburn Aero Club, which has been operational since 1964, is the ideal place for most of your training and flying needs. It is one of the largest flying clubs in the North of England and also one of the largest in the country.

For those who wish to experience the thrill of a flight for fun or to help fuel their aviation dreams, Sherburn offers experience flights for the newbie, as well as the veteran in various types of light aircraft.

The flight experience option is also available for people who wish to take to the skies for special occasions, even if they aren’t into aviation in the long run.

If you wish to begin your career in aviation or wish to take to the skies as a hobby, Sherburn’s flight training school offers private and commercial licences, along with pilot medicals to ensure a smooth journey going forward.

With a large fleet of new aircraft and an airfield refurbishment with new runways, hangars, and an extended clubhouse, we cater to brand-new flyers who have just started their journey to the skies, as well as seasoned flyers who have been operating aircraft for decades.

Sherburn offers a dedicated day-long Flight Radiotelephony Operator’s Licence (FRTOL) course for those wishing to get the certification, running the first Sunday of every month.

In addition to that, if you are looking for a hangarage for your own aircraft, need servicing or repairs, want to buy a new aircraft or aviation equipment, or are just looking to enjoy and watch the aircraft, Sherburn Aero Club is the place to be.

Call us at 01977 682 674​​​, email us at flightdesk@sherburnaeroclub.com, or message us via our online contact form for more information on light aircraft, training requirements, licencing procedures, as well as experience flights and pilot training at Sherburn.

Photo by Saj Shafique on Unsplash 



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