The end is near! For hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, humans have been making predictions about the end. The end of the earth, the end of cheap oil, the end of life as we know it, the end of free WiFi—I hate this kind of gloom and doom stuff. I hate it because this level of change represents difficulty, stress, pain (or even death), and it lacks hope and initiative! When I feel change lurking about, threatening my life, routines or habits, I try to act with intention to either preemptively create an ameliorating change or develop new systems to mitigate the effects of uncomfortable change. Sound selfish? Perhaps, but somewhere inside me is a strong instinct for survival. And I’m not so interested in survival without a healthy environment that ensures some measure of quality of life—for all life. There’s no question that our environment is threatened in a lot of areas. One example, here in my neck of the woods, are the rock cod I caught as a young man while fishing in Puget Sound. They’re all but gone.
I also see some threatening changes in store for general aviation. As I write this, the aviation industry is alive and vibrant. New airframes with exotic avionics are being rolled out at an astonishing pace. Aircraft sales are strong, and even some of the major airlines are profitable. But I can feel a palpable pressure gradient building up.
In addition to the fractious debates over user fees and airspace restrictions, aviation is facing increasing pressure about its contribution to fuel consumption, CO2 emissions, a declining and aging pilot population, low student starts, airport closures and, of course, noise.
Wow. If you take all these trends and threats into account, it sounds like pilots are headed for the endangered species list. So how does a practical optimist deal with such dark skies on the horizon? Some flightless birds are said to bury their heads in the sand when threatened. Some pilots will do just this and drift like a balloon in the wind. A small percentage of entrepreneurs and many companies have already recognized that there’s a market opportunity here and are working on new products at the edge of the innovative envelope; they’re designing newer, more efficient airframes and powerplants that are quieter, run on alternative fuels, and are cheaper and more user-friendly to operate. They hope to lead their markets into the future with practical and super-efficient products.
One industrious friend of mine who managed to circumnavigate the earth in a balloon is working on just such a project. With “Solar Impulse,” Bertrand Piccard hopes to design, manufacture and fly a solar-powered aircraft that will demonstrate sustainable technologies nonstop around the world. This quotation from Bertrand illustrates his proactive intention to create positive change in our world:
“Life is like a balloon...In a balloon you learn new ways to deal with the winds of life. Each time the winds of life push us in directions we cannot control, our only freedom is to change altitude in our mind, philosophy or spirituality, in order to take a new direction...”
As he puts it, creative initiatives or “altitude changes” address industry issues up front, before they become problems that mandate difficult and unpopular changes.
One of the most fulfilling changes of altitude in my life has been my work with nonprofit organizations. Instead of feeling frustrated and powerless, it’s very inspiring and empowering to feel like you’re part of a team that’s enabling positive change in someone’s life, or indeed, the world.
This work began for me in 1996 with the X PRIZE Foundation and led to a shift in the world’s perspective on spaceflight with the successful flight of SpaceShipOne. As a result of these efforts, there’s now a robust (albeit young) private space industry that promises to make cheaper and safer access to space. This illustrates a concerted effort to create a future in space for smaller companies and perhaps, eventually, the ordinary person.
In 1998, I was elected to the board of the Lindbergh Foundation, which is a public 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation based upon my grandparents’ vision of balance between advancing technology and preservation of the environment. Although we give grants to people working in a wide range of disciplines, they aren’t all typical environmental research projects. Many of our grants end up focusing on technological efficiencies. The current board has reached back to its aviation roots and is actively working on partnerships to sponsor grants in the aviation world. This year’s grants represent creative solutions that will enable greater efficiencies in high-density air traffic, decreases in airframe drag and alternative fuel engine retrofits.
Is an industry altitude change a good idea right now when the aviation business is generally strong? Yes! If we wait until the industry weakens, we won’t have the voice or the resources to be as effective.
Does it have to be drastic? Well, one thing is for sure: If we don’t drive the solution dialog and vigorously support the individuals and organizations that represent the best of aviation, we could face a future where someone else is sitting in the left seat dictating what aviation looks like. I find this prospect unacceptable. I want to have the freedom to fly in the future. I don’t mind if it looks a little different, but like the rock cod in Puget Sound, I don’t want to be wistfully describing “the way aviation was” to kids in the future, I want to show them how cool it is!
How do we change altitude? We must become early adopters and supporters of efficient technologies. We need to fly Angel Flight missions, support aviation research projects and education initiatives. We need to make our support of the greater community indispensable. We need to be relevant to the average person. We need to make aviation more affordable and accessible. Aviation needs to drive the creative solution dialog and address the grand challenges facing us today in order to have blue skies to fly in tomorrow.
Erik Lindbergh is a pilot, artist and public speaker (www.lindberghgallery.com). He’s the Director of the Lindbergh Foundation (www.lindberghfoundation.com), a trustee of the X PRIZE Foundation (www.xprize.org), a board member of the Aviation High School (www.aviationhs.org) and National Spokesperson for AOPA’s Project Pilot (www.aopa.org).