Let’s get the obvious out of the way right from the start. The Solar Impulse is gangly, goofy-looking, slow, fragile, and can’t possibly carry the entire family in luxurious comfort to Aunt Sally’s house for the holidays. That pretty much covers what it’s not, a topic which seems to have gotten a fair amount of attention during the beast’s two-month journey across the continent. But when the Solar Impulse landed in New York, Kennedy Airport was abuzz with reporters who mostly missed the point of the flight.
You’re shocked, I know.
While some news outlets proclaimed the solar powered airplane’s time had come, and others smothered a chuckle as they reported on an almost painfully slow transcontinental flight – most of them failed to understand the importance of what they were seeing. Consequently, they were incapable of connecting the dots and reporting the real story: Aviation continues to stretch the boundaries of human creativity. The industry is — and always has been — in development mode.
Contrary to the reporting and commentary we’ve seen in the press lately, Solar Impulse is not a publicity stunt. Exciting things are happening. Whether the majority of the population recognizes it or not, there are clever, forward-thinking minds creating new opportunities, new technologies, and new applications for those technologies all the time.
Consider the history of aviation’s acceptance into the wider world. Orville and Wilbur Wright, along with their pioneering peers, were so poorly covered by the press that disputes about who flew first still linger to this day. The state of Connecticut decided to settle the debate this year by passing legislation officially recognizing Gustave Whitehead as the first to fly.
Somehow, I doubt a governor’s signature will be the deciding piece of evidence in that argument.
The New York Times famously disparaged Robert Goddard in 1920, saying his understanding of science and rocketry was less than could be expected of a high school student of the time. In 1969 the paper’s editorial board came to their senses and apologized for the error. Apparently it only takes putting men on the moon to convince that particular outlet of their fallibility.
A single individual couldn’t cross the Atlantic Ocean flying solo, the Hercules (more commonly known as the Spruce Goose) was too big to fly, humans were too frail to survive in space. The list of erroneous assumptions goes on.
I’ll suggest the Solar Impulse has given us a great, and much needed, kick in the pants. It’s providing a wake-up call to any who will listen. And it’s message is clear – the aircraft you see in the sky above you today are not the pinnacle of human achievement. There’s more to come.
Cleaner aircraft, quieter aircraft, more efficient aircraft are all on their way. The Solar Impulse is their standard bearer. It is up to us to understand the message and help spread the message to those who do not yet understand the arc of engineering and invention this industry is on.
Understanding this is critical to general aviation as an industry. With city administrations across the country railing against the perceived problems GA presents them with — lead-filled exhaust, noise, liability concerns, etc. — it is imperative that we, the proponents of the industry, have the insight to share the broader message with our neighbors, co-workers, and community leaders.
The machines they see at the local airport are not the aircraft of the future, they are the aircraft of the past. And while I love those machines, and revere their developers, I cannot escape knowing that aviation was born from ideas developed in the late 19th Century. It was developed into a viable industry in the 20th Century.
But it will only be refined into a sustainable, good-neighbor in the 21st Century. We are on the cusp of seeing airplanes that are quieter, that produce no noxious exhaust, and are safer than ever thought possible.
Those developments are not just on the drawing board, they’re in the works. They will happen. And we know that because the Solar Impulse just crossed a continent without burning a drop of 100LL or waking a single noise-sensitive airport neighbor.
I wonder if the fine folks in Santa Monica might have the foresight to rethink their plans and jump on that bandwagon?