So I'm incubating a few alternate histories in my head. Many of them will butterfly away the Wright Brothers and many other familiar parts of history, and at least one has aircraft development as a prominent point in the story.

I could just go with the configurations OTL uses. The problem is, I really try to avoid just blindly copying from our history when I don't understand the how's and why's something happened a certain way. Often times, you can wind up with something completely different. So when the time comes for fixed-wing aircraft to be developed, there's a chance it could go differently...

But in order to be realistic, the aircraft must be at least almost as effective as a tailplane, and reasonable to build. "Effective" and "reasonable" being:

  1. It has comparable advantages in stability, lift production and maneuvering.
  2. The design has comparable economic advantages; it doesn't necessarily require more resources to build and maintain.
  3. The design does not (necessarily) incorporate concepts that require an advanced and well-developed understanding of fixed-wing aerodynamics. These would be among the early aircraft designs, or at least a short time into successful flight, so things like vortilons, fly-by-wire, etc. would not be present.

I know canards, for example, were popular early in aviation history, but were then replaced by the tailplane. The explanations I've read for this is that canard craft tend to have difficult stall recovery in certain situations (e.g the wing stalls first). Along with the historical claims of safety, its replacement of canard craft does seem to imply that it was indeed a superior design. Since aviation itself was in its infancy, I don't know how much stock to put into that. It could be that the modern configuration with large wings in front and a tail in back really is the most well-rounded design and thus an inevitability, but I don't know any better.

If the development of flight happened all over again on an alternate timeline Earth, would airplanes still look the same as today?

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    $\begingroup$ What have you searched and found on the topic, and why asking this on worldbuilding and not on aviation.SE? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Feb 20 '19 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch I have 2 worlds I'm building off and on - one is a scifi and the other is just an alternate history Earth with a distant point of divergence. My question is mostly for the latter, but my scifi species would also benefit from these answers since the planet is mostly the same. I haven't gone into much further detail than Wikipedia articles. $\endgroup$ – Thesaurus Rex Feb 20 '19 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ Any basic primer on aeronautical engineering will answer this question: Here's a good one: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_dynamics_(fixed-wing_aircraft). The CoL must be directly above the CoG for stable flight - that's why the wings are where they are. Elevator and rudder are far aft also because that's the best location for stable flight $\endgroup$ – user535733 Feb 20 '19 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ I think what's missing is the exact alternate earth you have in mind and it's effects on aviation. Even if canards or whatever is a good design we have nothing to go on in your background to say "yep, canards would be taken instead of tailplanes!" $\endgroup$ – Demigan Feb 20 '19 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ @ThesaurusRex One of the big advantages of bell-shaped wingload is precisely that it makes flying wings controllable. With elliptical wingload, when you yaw right, you pitch left, making things unstable. With bell-shaped wingload, it is the opposite, so you can actually turn right when you turn right instead of turning left when you turn right. $\endgroup$ – Eth Feb 21 '19 at 14:17

Assuming the atmospheric and other relevant properties were roughly the same you can expect airplanes to look roughly the same.

They are built that way for performance after extensive modelling and development. If another shape was more efficient they would have transitioned to it.

Look at evolution for examples, dolphins and sharks both evolved separately and yet ended up with very similar body plans. The main difference in shape being vertical or horizontal tail movements (which is an example of something that can be changed).


They are very different animals and yet have very similar body shapes - despite using different materials and having lots of other differences. You can expect airplanes to be similar.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's interesting to use animals as an example because most clades have different approaches to flight. Birds have a more or less 'tailplane' configuration, bats are flying wings, pterosaurs are somewhere between a flying wing and a blended body, and insects can't really be compared to fixed-wing aircraft at all. For technology, success itself is a factor (which is also what I suspect is the major cause) but there is also economic risk in innovation and people may have went with just what they knew worked better for now. $\endgroup$ – Thesaurus Rex Feb 20 '19 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ @ThesaurusRex Most of those differences in animals are due to size differences though (i.e. insect flight does not scale up to larger sizes). It's the same reason we still have biplanes for lower speed work and maneuverability. Bats vs birds again they are adapted for different things - in general bats are agile short range flyers and actually when you look at the shape of the wing it isn't that different from a bird wing. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 20 '19 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ I dont think its as simple as "efficiënt design will automatically win". For example, the facilities might not be available and would need to be build, or there needs to be massive investment into the new design to make it safe, efficiënt and have reasonable build-costs. No one is going to build a plane that is slightly more efficiënt but costs more and has higher risks involved. Look at rocketengines. The spike engine (I think it was the spike engine) is far more efficiënt, but the research, money and time investment to get it there is so high no one does it. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Feb 20 '19 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think the aerospike is a good example for development inertia. The reason aerospikes are not used is that they are difficult to develop all on their own. If you want to see inertia in full force, look at things that require to interface with infrastructure. The reason cargo ships are the size they are is that they have to fit the Panama canal. Similarly no one is going to build wider car or truck because they can't use normal streets. $\endgroup$ – Whitecold Feb 20 '19 at 15:09

One of the greatest advantages the canard design has is in a full on stall and catastrophic loss of altitude. In that situation the canard stabilises the stall and brings you back out into level flight.

This is most advantageous when building paper aeroplanes for a department competition, and I've used it to full effect for such purposes, it's less of a thing with modern aircraft.

Equally for the likes of the Wright brothers and their immediate successors building low powered, light, primitive aircraft, a canard design has major advantages, so it depends at what point in history you're building your planes.

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  • $\begingroup$ I did a bit of reading since the first post. Don't canards make stalls worse if the main wing stalls first, since a lack of negating downforce would pitch the craft up constantly? $\endgroup$ – Thesaurus Rex Feb 21 '19 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ @ThesaurusRex, yes, the canard must stall first, don't forget that these days it's mostly used for experimental combat aircraft where the idea is to reduce stability and hence increase maneuverability. As the aircraft becomes faster that instability becomes an issue, but at Wright brother's speeds, the increased control is an advantage. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 21 '19 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ Note that the issue of which stalls first, canard or main wing, is entirely dependent on the actual design. Early designers did not understand a lot of what we now take for granted, and stall behavior was very much on that list. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Feb 21 '19 at 17:30

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