This past week something remarkable occurred on live streaming video for all the world to see.
Elon Musk, the enfant terrible of the tech world, introduced the public to a pick-up truck so far out of the mainstream in terms of styling that many initially took it as a joke. Surely there must be a more traditional looking model sitting in the wings, ready to roll out after we all had a good laugh at this ugly duckling.
Nope. The unfinished steel shell, blacked-out windows, and sharp angular form are the real deal. This news surprised a great many who had been anticipating something amazing, not something so repugnantly unrefined.
When the markets opened, Tesla stock fell more than 6%. The world saw and the world responded. Musk’s big reveal was a bust. The CyberTruck would be a loser of the first order.
Or so it seemed. Musk came back with fire, tweeting that his company had received 146,000 orders for the much maligned vehicle in just 24 hours, which translates to $8 billion in sales.
In the interest of full disclosure I’m honor bound to mention, one of the orders on Tesla’s books belongs to me. There will be a CyberTruck in my driveway sometime in late 2021, or 2022, or something like that. I believe in a weird, bright future.
So, what’s all this got to do with aircraft, aviation, or the price of avgas?
Plenty. Our world is on the cusp of a change. A major shift in how transportation works. And you’re sitting right up front with a great view of the field.
When my granddad was a young man living in what would eventually become a retiree’s paradise on the Gulf Coast of Florida, transportation was simple. Each power source clocked in at one horsepower and ran on a few squares of hay, a cup of grain, and a bucket of reasonably fresh water. If your wagon was heavy, you might strap a second horse into the harnesses. Voilà! Two horsepower.
This was before air conditioning, of course. Before paved roads, electricity, and running water made their way to the neighborhood. Aviation was in its infancy.
One of the big tricks only recently accomplished by the pioneers of the field was the turn. Not a level turn, mind you. Powerplants and propellers didn’t yet produce enough thrust to accomplish that feat. But even so, an intentional change of direction was a major step in the right direction for powered fliers.
How times have changed.
By the time dear old granddad had his first job, the Curtiss JN-4 biplane was making waves. Built of wood, covered in fabric, and powered by a 90-hp OX-5 engine, the Jenny was a wonder. It flew almost exclusively from grass fields, landing and taking off wherever the opportunity presented itself. With the ability to cruise at 75 mph and carry a passenger in relative comfort, the Jenny was a world beater — so much so it’s still revered today, more than 100 years later.
Time would illustrate all too clearly, however, the Jenny wasn’t the end game. It was just a stepping stone to the next big concept.
By the time my grandfather had become a father himself, just a couple decades after the Jenny first flew, the Curtiss P-40 was sitting on the paved ramp of a well-established airport, ready to go. More than 1,000 horsepower hid in the nose of the airplane, ready to propel it past 350 mph, and race to more than 30,000′ above the earth.
Twenty years after that, Boeing put the 707 into service flying more than 100 people at a time across oceans in a pressurized, shirt-sleeve environment. The 707 was powered by four turbine engines that produced a combined 72,000 pounds of thrust.
At the exact same time, astronauts were preparing to take their first steps toward landing on the moon.
All this, within 40 or so years of Glenn Curtiss’ company launching a wood framed slow-poke, covered in cotton, flying out of a farmer’s field.
In between there were thousands of misfires, errors, failures, and flat-out blunders that sent engineers and mechanics into the shadows, shaking their heads, trying to figure out where they’d gone wrong.
And yet here we are, with aviation more capable, safer, and more economically feasible than it’s ever been.
Not long ago the Solar Impulse flew around the entire globe, powered by electric motors, driving high-tech propellers. Another impossible feat fell to the record books.
It happened. It will happen again, too. Faster, with greater comfort, and on a more practical mission.
Just as Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis paved the way for Pan American to span the globe, the Solar Impulse has blazed a trail for a new type of propulsion to come into play.
Just as Tesla’s Armor Glass didn’t measure up during the live demonstration, there will be failures as aviation shifts to an electric power solution. But that solution will come. With more powerful batteries and quicker recharging technologies and a thousand other little details that will never occur to the majority of us — electric power is coming to an airplane near you, sooner than you think.
It’s no great feat of prediction to make this suggestion. It’s all happening right now, today, in shops and labs all over the world. Perhaps one day that classic Cub will be powered by a quiet, efficient, electric motor that performs as well as — or better than — the C-65 it originally came with.
When that day comes, the only question that still bugs me is what will the neighbors complain about then? When the engine is hushed, the exhaust fumes are no more, and the only evidence left behind is a slight buzzing sound far overhead, will those communities that closed their airports a decade before regret their hasty decision?
Yeah, I think they will. Very much so.