Last week one of my kids jumped on a transport category aircraft and flew more than a thousand miles north, to New York City. She ate dinner in central Florida, but found herself on the island of Manhattan before midnight.
While she was en route, I monitored her flight using an app on my phone. It confirmed she’d traveled at better than 450 knots, while cruising at 38,000 feet.
She traveled in a shirt-sleeve environment requiring no special equipment or apparatus be affixed to the passengers to keep them alive.
This, while spending more than two hours at an altitude well above that of Mount Everest’s peak where temperatures plunge into shockingly low negative numbers, regardless of whether they’re measured in Fahrenheit or Celsius. The cabin of the airplane she flew in was kept at a comfortable temperature throughout the flight.
Now here’s the really weird part. Not a single person reading this finds anything about that description to be the least bit unusual or surprising.
We are well through the looking glass, Alice.
As for myself, I enjoy flying a 1940 Piper J3 Cub. I keep it stashed in a hangar not far from my home. Although it’s considered a classic aircraft, it’s as viable and reliable today as it was on the day it rolled off the factory floor.
Although it is little more than a collection of steel tubes wrapped in Dacron, the Cub is a sturdy machine. The engine puts out a measly 65 hp, which it uses to drive a propeller made of wood. The airplane is so basic it never had a proper Pilots Operating Handbook.
When it was new it came with something that could most reasonably be called a comic book, which included some basic information, but little in the way of the specifics an airplane coming off the assembly line would be required to carry today.
The Cub has no electrical system, so starting it requires the pilot, or a competent friend, to spin the propeller manually to achieve the aeronautical equivalent of popping the clutch on your dad’s old VW Bug.
It has no radio. It has no lights or navigation equipment other than the wet compass mounted in the panel. And when I take a passenger along, their position in the front seat almost completely blocks my view of the instruments.
When I fly this marvelous machine, it is done almost entirely by looking out the window to judge pitch and altitude. Power is often set by the sound of the engine rather than the numbers on the tach.
I rarely venture above 1,000 feet. And living in a rural area as I do, I often have to transition from cruise to climb in order to reach pattern altitude at the end of a flight.
Now here’s the really weird part. A high percentage of people reading this will find that description to be a little freaky. Some will think it’s downright dangerous.
The modern John and Jane Doe need to get some perspective on aviation. It contributes mightily to their lives, whether they personally ever choose to fly or not. Yet by and large, people have no idea how aviation works, or what a massive spectrum of activities and altitudes the industry covers.
Aviation would be severely challenged if it were not for the contributions of people who never leave the ground. Engineers, mechanics, fuel providers, baggage handlers, administrators, schedulers, tower controllers, and a slew of others spend their days and nights making flight possible, and doing their part to assure the safety of those in the air.
Slightly above them, as the next layer of the aeronautical onion is peeled back, is the general aviation pilot. Often they are flying something simple with minimal power, like my beloved Cub.
But there are many others. Seaplanes and helicopters tend to cruise along only a few hundred feet above the ground. The newly launched Unmanned Aerial Systems we’re becoming accustomed to are ground huggers as well, for the most part.
Above them are the flight students, climbing up into the low thousands of feet to learn how to handle an airplane in flight. The GA pilot flying recreationally fits into this strata as well, as does an impressive collection of military aircraft on high speed, low level routes.
Higher still are piston driven business aircraft. They allow developers, lawyers, bankers, salespeople, politicians, and the like to expand their reach by traveling considerable distances in a time frame no other mode of transportation can offer.
The next layer up mixes turbo-props with turbine powered aircraft. It extends from roughly 10,000 feet up through the low 40s. Some are privately owned business aircraft, while others are owned in fractions by multiple entities.
Commercial service providers operate in the higher reaches of the lower atmosphere too, carrying people and products from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world, in a single day.
Higher still are military aircraft, experimental machinery, spacecraft, and satellites.
Yes, we often forget that over the past century aviation has transitioned from the impossible, to the practical, to the mundane.
When I was born not a single human being had ever been outside earth’s atmosphere. Now, there is a collection of men and women circling the globe every minute of every day, and we’ve become so accustomed to the safety of it we don’t even give this miracle of technology a thought.
One day, and I hope it is one day soon, we’ll raise that upper limit again, launching human crews to Mars and beyond.
Because we are explorers. We push the boundaries of the possible until the inconceivable becomes nearly pedestrian.
And in the process there will be a place for everyone who wants one in the aerospace industry. From the ground up, we’re changing the future of humanity for the better.
Happy 2017, y’all. Let’s go do something remarkable.