In 1903 Orville and Wilbur flew on strips of ash and “Pride of the West” muslin. Their engine weighed in at an acceptable 180 pounds, producing a barely adequate 12 horsepower.
The engine had no carburetor or fuel metering device as we know them today. Raw gasoline fed into the intake manifold where it hopefully vaporized to mix with the air filling the chamber. A spark was generated by contacts that opened and closed. There’s not a spark plug to be found on that powerplant.
We might see a machine of that description as quaint, or rough, or even amateurish. Certainly, the FAA would be loath to certify such a rag-tag assemblage of parts. But that was the state of the art at the genesis of modern aviation.
We have come a long, long way.
Recently, aircraft are both lauded as the great potential salvation of stranded commuters, and as the cause of undue pollution, noise, and environmental damage.
Let’s be honest. Both descriptions are based on valid points. Aviation does provide greater mobility than any other form of transportation. Quick service, point-to-point deliveries, and the ability to easily operate in the most densely packed cities or from the most isolated retreat make aviation a near necessity of modern life.
At the same time aircraft engines burn fuels that leave behind exhaust gases and solids that can be accurately described as icky, gross, and undeniably unhealthy.
That is our state of affairs today. But it is not an accurate representation of tomorrow. What is bears little resemblance to what will be. Technology marches on. It improves our lives. It betters itself over time.
This is not a time for hand-wringing, fear-mongering, or knee-jerk legislative efforts. The past gives us a solid clue as to the potential of our future. In the realm of aviation, that future looks brighter, cleaner, and better than ever.
Innovation will rule the day. Not some futuristic, pie-in-the-sky, rose-colored glasses kind of innovation that may never come to pass. Real machinery is coming down the line that will change the way we live, work, commute, and travel. The technology that will make giant strides toward those goals is coming. In many cases, it’s already here.
It’s unlikely a nobleman languishing in the English countryside, witnessing a flight of George Cayley’s glider in the first half of the 19th Century, would turn to his partner and say, “My word, Reginald. What a splendid machine that would make for traveling to the Americas.”
No. That’s not the impression Cayley’s basic glider gave. Yet reliable reports say it did fly and it did carry a man aloft.
That’s a start. For Cayely led to Lillienthal. Lillienthal led to the Wrights. The Wrights led to Curtiss. Curtiss led to Kelly Johnson. And the beat goes on.
To this day, progress is being made. Big, astounding, incredible progress that extends to materials, powerplants, ergonomics, and so much more.
“But,” you ask, “how is it possible these amazing things are happening and the public isn’t aware of it?”
That’s a fair question. Again, the key to our future is found in our past. The Wrights didn’t conduct their initial flight tests in Central Park. They set out for the sparsely populated barrier islands of North Carolina. An area that had been virtually abandoned only a few decades earlier as the Union Army advanced on the South.
Privacy was critical. Having the space to fail in private until success could be achieved…it was as important then as it is today. It will continue to be important into the future, too.
Consider the Go Fly challenge. “The goal of the GoFly Prize is to foster the development of safe, quiet, ultra-compact, near-VTOL personal flying devices capable of flying 20 miles while carrying a single person.”
Sponsored by Boeing, the stated goal of the contest may seem fanciful to some, idiotic to others, and inspirational to the few who will change the way we live half a century from now. It will produce results, however. It already has.
The men and women who engage in the Go Fly challenge, as well as others who participate in similarly optimistic engineering endeavors, are the direct technological descendants of Da Vinci, Edison, Tesla, Orville and Wilbur, Von Braun, and Musk. They will change our world. They will create new modes of travel that are safer, quieter, more efficient, pollute less, and cost a fraction of what aviation cost in the past.
This will all come to pass. As it has before. As it is doing now. Because the human capacity for innovation is astounding. The willingness to build on the successes of those who came before is ingrained in the best of us. Their aversion to quitting, even in the face of what appears to be an impossible task, is legendary.
To embrace what is possible takes courage and commitment. To fear the past, mistaking it for an accurate representation of the future, is immature and unenlightened.
There exists a photograph of Orville Wright, smiling, sitting in the right seat of a Lockheed Constellation. It was taken in 1944 — 31 years after that first flight. The Constellation has a wingspan wider than Orville’s first powered flight was long.
Could he and his brother Wilbur have possibly imagined their anemic prototype Flyer would lead to aircraft that could cross continents and oceans carrying 100 people or more? Could they have envisioned powerplants that would produce hundreds of horsepower and run for thousands of hours? Doubtful. Yet it came to pass. Technology marches on.
What will come next? I can’t say for sure. But I can imagine with a reasonable level of certainty that it will be exciting, quieter, safer, and more maneuverable than the aircraft you or I fly today.
This is going to be good.