In America it began in 1793, on the day Jean Blanchard piloted a balloon from Philadelphia to Woodbury, New Jersey. That’s barely a hop, skip, and a jump today. In a time when George Washington was still alive, it was a mind-blowing achievement.
It happened again in 1860 when Sam King took photographer James Black aloft in a balloon known as “Queen of the Air,” where the latter snapped two photos of Boston from 2,000 feet above the street.
The scene repeated itself in 1903 on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, then again at Huffman Prairie as two brothers and their scant crew of assistants proved the impossible to be entirely within the reach of human beings.
And once again it came to pass, in 1927 as a young airmail pilot prepared to shake the world with his tenacity and talent.
In each case, the world was changed, the public was enthralled, and the potential for human kind to shrink even the most insurmountable problems down to size became evident for all to see.
The common thread is this: A bold innovative individual gathered together supportive, like-minded friends or family, launched off into the great unknown, and achieved their dreams.
They didn’t gather in a well-appointed office, or the board room of a large multi-national corporation, or the meeting rooms of a state of federal office building.
No, they gathered in a cow pasture, or a clearing outside of town, or in a muddy field, as they plotted their next move.
These pioneers tend to possess insufficient funds, barely functional hardware, and a staff that is more often than not making up their processes and procedures as they go along.
The dream of what could be far outweighs the reality of the craft they are actually testing. But they continue to dream, and refine their machinery, and learn their procedures, and break new ground as they go.
This is the Field Effect. It happens when smart, dedicated individuals bond themselves to the dream of creating, or advancing human potential by using technology, intellect, and a heaping helping of bravery to reach their goal.
This is a home grown flight test program that has repeated itself over and over through the years, with each new participant building on the work of their predecessors. Their boldest hopes are tied up in the tangible parts and pieces that make up the test vehicles they have developed, and the intangible insights they believe will yield great results.
Their machinery is often crude in appearance, sometimes giving the impression of an unfinished art project, or an unfinished vehicle that needs considerable attention.
They offer few creature comforts. Who among us would care to test the Wright’s 1903 Flier in a real world environment, or cross the Atlantic as Lindbergh did?
A very real risk of physical harm comes along with those dreamy imaginings. Many were injured or killed in the pursuits the Wrights, Lindbergh, and their aeronautical contemporaries pursued. Yet the pursued their dreams with full knowledge of the risk, and they succeeded.
The rest of us are the beneficiaries of their engineering prowess, their aeronautical planning, and their willingness to execute a plan other deemed foolhardy or reckless.
Make no mistake, a new generation of flying machines often suffers from deficiencies that are only discovered in flight. Many are plagued by a lack of power or serious controllability issues. Some prove to be structurally deficient.
The flight test program is intended to prove a concept in the real world. The path that leads from testing to refinement to ultimate success is a long one, with many twists and turns, and an occasional dead end.
But our lives are improved immeasurably by the work done by men and women working in cramped quarters, with minimal financial backing, often with mud on their shoes and grease stains on their clothing.
These are the technological heros of our age. Most of them will remain anonymous to the public at large. Yet the work they do benefits us all in one way or another.
Last week I was fortunate enough to experience a brief flirtation with the Field Effect. The specifics of the project are immaterial, although I found the demonstration to be quite intriguing.
What really struck me was the undeniable connection between this crew, stepping over cow-pies and avoiding gopher tortoise holes, and the groups of men and women who had come before them.
Orville and Wilbur weren’t there in person, of course, but their spirits were very much in attendance. As was the memory of Glenn Curtiss, Louis Bleriot, Alberto Santos Dumont, Igor Sikorsky, Geoffrey de Havilland, and so many others.
The human imagination is an amazing thing. It’s interesting to note how often the fruit of that imagination is displayed for the first time in a rudimentary state, in an open field, far from prying eyes, powered primarily by high hopes and fervent wishes for success.
It is from these humble beginnings we have gone from being a ground bound species to the pioneers who flew to the moon and back. There are humans living and working in earth orbit every single day, because not so long ago a collection of smart, dedicated men and women refused to accept the perceived limitations placed upon our kind.
Imagine what might happen in the next 100 years. And as you imagine that future, know that at this moment there are talented people standing in a field, trying their best to make it happen.
We are very fortunate indeed to be here to see the results, and to be among those who help take humanity to the next level — again.