As a measure of humanity’s progress with things technological, it’s hard to come up with a more dramatic example than aerospace, which in the course of just 66 years went from the Wrights coaxing their rackety flyer into the gusty North Carolina oceanside air to Neil and Buzz going for a stroll on the moon. There were people alive in 1969 who remembered very well the first planes flying. That all of that progress came within an average human’s lifespan is unfathomable in terms of human history. After all, it took us millennia to figure out agriculture, but by the time the internal combustion engine showed up on the scene, things started happening fast.
Evolutionary biologist and lifelong New York Yankees fan Stephen J. Gould came up with the idea of punctuated equilibrium, that is, that evolutionary changes in organisms don’t happen in a steady, predictable way but, rather, in peaks and valleys. As change becomes more rapid, the process becomes an incubator for even more change, like a wildfire creating its own weather.
And that’s what happened with flying, too. As new technologies were developed, those technologies helped spawn others. In just a small example, the advent of instrument flying, for instance, helped give rise to the development of advanced instrumentation, a variety of sensors, ground navigation systems, onboard radar, in-cockpit weather and more.
But as great as the jumpstart that invention gives to further invention is, nothing drives technological progress as much as world events. And aviation has been changed fundamentally over the past hundred-plus years by events whose impact on culture were both unforeseeable and terribly, obviously waiting to happen.
THE MASS MOBILITY MOVEMENT
The move to mechanically propelled forms of transportation, including everything from steamboats and trains to electric trolleys, part of the Industrial Revolution, was a major driver in the development of the first aircraft. But nothing came close to the impact that the development of personal transportation vehicles, namely the automobile and the motorcycle, had.
One reason was scale. Both cars and planes, at least as far as they imagined the latter’s future, were seen as transportation for no more than a few people, to be powered by a single-engine, with a drive train spinning the motive mechanism, wheels vs. propellers, respectively. Many of the problems that automobile engineers were attempting to solve, including the development of suitably lightweight engines for their vehicles, were exactly the same things that plane makers were concerned with. They came up with numerous good ideas, from the opposed engine to the arrangement of the instruments and controls to the enclosing of the seating area. These were usually adopted and adapted for aircraft use in some modified form.
And the widespread use of cars meant that gasoline became widely and readily available, mak- ing the choice of powerplants an easy call. The other critical development of the automobile was infrastructure. As cars and trucks got highways and bridges, so, too, did aircraft get airports, runways and service providers. When the paving of roads became commonplace, the paving of runways to accommodate faster and larger planes was easy to do.
Finally, the development of manufacturing processes to build large numbers of cars would soon allow the mass manufacture of large numbers of airplanes in what would come next.
THE FIRST TECHNOLOGY WAR
What came next was, of course, a global conflict, one in which modern mechanized technology played a larger role—the crossbow notwithstanding—than in any previous war in determining not only who won or lost but also how many causalities were inflicted. Despite all the energy that both sides put into their development, aircraft wound up being an almost negligible factor in the outcome of the First World War, dwarfed in importance by advances in firearms, artillery and chemical weapons.
But what the great aerial experiment did was drive a refinement of aircraft that might have taken decades without the pressure bearing down on developers. Over the course of several years, planes went from gracile, awkward and slow to much faster, stronger, well-armed and highly maneuverable. The war also allowed nations to understand better how aircraft needed to continue to advance if these new instruments of war were to become major factors in large-scale conflicts. For better or for worse, within 20 years, they had gotten it right, and aircraft would become not only a factor but a deciding factor in who won the next war.
Developed at the tail end of World War II, the Boeing B-29 combined pressurization, ultra-long-range design and great payload-carrying ability to change the tide of the war in the Pacific
THE FIGHT AGAINST FASCISM
It’s tempting to credit, or blame, the meteoric rise of aviation progress in the ’30s and ’40s to World War II, but the truth is that even before the war began in earnest, world powers were already upping their game in advance of their moves to either attack or protect territory that might soon be in dispute. The major players were, in approximate order of appearance (approximate because it’s complicated): Japan, Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States (with Italy and others acting as wild cards along the way).
Based on lessons learned from World War I, the architects of power in each of those nations knew that in order to win in future wars, air power was a necessary ingredient. To achieve that, they correctly surmised that they’d have to produce huge numbers of pilots to fly huge numbers of aircraft that would be orders of magnitude more capable than their predecessors from the last war. They’d also need to better define and delineate between aircraft types, i.e., fighters, bombers, attack planes, liaisons, dive bombers and more, taking into account the special needs of each type. Their missions, in many cases, drove design approaches that were incompatible with other missions. Bombers couldn’t have massive payloads and also be nimble, as fighters had to be.
Training strategies and equipment were also more specialized and effective. Germany was prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I from assembling a new air force. So, it trained thousands of pilots in sailplanes, which were not banned because, after all, what was the harm? But by 1933, Germany had secretly created the Luftwaffe, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, and by the time Germany launched its Blitzkrieg attack in Poland and France just over six years later, it had the largest and most capable air force in the world.
Japan, too, had been amassing its air forces as part of its imperialist move against China, so by the time the island nation launched its attack against the United States, it had the best aircraft carriers in the world, a development that allowed it to take the battle far and wide.
The United States, for its part, was building its air force and other military powers years before it entered World War II officially.
The subject of how the lead-up to World War II and the eventual war itself drove aviation innovation could be the subject of volumes. But in brief, the conflict drove the development of powerplant technology—by the end of the war, the jet engine was widely understood to be the future of propulsion—and airframe development, with far larger, faster and more maneuverable aircraft, and flying tactics and training. The years between 1930 and 1945 changed the world of aviation forever for all of us.
Even before we got there, the very idea of getting to space captivated researchers in the most techno- logically advanced nations, most notably Germany, whose scientists beat everyone to nearly practical rocket planes—the Messerschmitt Me 163 was an operational rocket plane during the latter years of World War II—and who were just slightly too late, luckily, in their development of operational jet fighters that would likely have air superiority over Europe had they been more numerous earlier in the conflict.
While space was kind of a dead-end for aviation in terms of crossover propulsion technology, the advances in materials, aerodynamics, craft control and communications that modern space programs developed created direct benefit to aviation.
Manufacturing advances also drove improvements in aviation technology, chiefly in the refinement of metallurgy and the honing of very fine-tolerance machining tools that were put to use in ever-more-efficient, lightweight and powerful turbine engines, which have defined atmospheric aviation in the last 70 years.
We shouldn’t forget that space and the satellites we’ve put there have given us previously unimaginably powerful tools for navigation (GPS and other satellite systems), weather detection and avoidance, and communications.
FREEDOM, GEOGRAPHY AND DEMOGRAPHICS
While progress in aviation technology was driven by the necessities of competing in a modern global arena, and it was, then putting that technology into action and into use was made possible by big changes in demographics around the world. This was very notable in the United States, which during the war years became the world leader in all things aerospace. It has maintained that position ever since, albeit with some impressive competition from around the globe—European megalith Airbus is arguably the predominant aerospace manufacturer in the world.
But the United States’ embrace of general aviation has been far greater than anywhere else in the world, thanks to a confluence of factors. First, there was the sheer number of citizens returning from war in the 1940s, the fact that they were returning to a country that had not been directly devastated by the conflict, and that they were captivated by the aviation technology they had witnessed at war, often firsthand. The subsequent rise of the American middle class was a direct outcome of the war experience, and soon, American factories began churning out high-quality, relatively low-cost, entry-level aircraft manufactured using the same materials and design concepts as some of the warplanes American factories were no longer turning out at high rates.
These factors combined with two others to help create the remarkable story that is American private aviation. These uniquely American factors are the wide-open and largely privately owned continent that was still being settled by the end of the war, a culture of individualism and an almost religious belief in progress. All these came together to make aviation the perfect complement to the American Experience. This was true for practical reasons—airplanes offer an unprecedented degree of personal mobility even to an average person—and philosophically, as its core tenets of freedom of movement and personal autonomy were as American as one could imagine.
The result was that from the 30-plus-year span from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s, American aircraft manufacturers turned out hundreds of thousands of low-cost personal aircraft for millions of American pilots and aircraft owners.
THE AGE OF COMPACT AND CHEAP COMPUTERS
If you were a pilot in the mid-to-late 1980s, it was impossible to own a personal computer, or even to be merely aware of the technology, and not wonder how these devices might someday affect aviation, as it had already gained a foothold in space flight.
The rise of computer tech into private aircraft was, predictably, at first into commercial and business jets because early digital products—everything from solid-state navigation gear, like inertial guidance nav systems, to CRT displays and autoflight computers—were big, heavy and breathtakingly expensive. So, these products were a better fit in every way for bigger, more expensive aircraft. In fact, it seemed unlikely to many industry observers that such gear would ever find its way into light aircraft.
But as market-savvy economists predicted it would, computer technology became smaller, more powerful, less expensive and more adaptable to different uses. By the 1980s, computerized navigators, like BendixKing’s KLN-series Loran and GPS navigators, offered unprecedented capabilities to small-plane pilots, including never-before-seen levels of situational awareness. Before long, moving-map technology, first portable and soon panel-mount, came to light planes. These included products from companies such as II Morrow, Arnav and Lowrance. And in the early 2000s, light planes started getting flat-panel primary flight displays, with Avidyne breaking ground with its Enterra suite in the Cirrus SR-series aircraft and shortly thereafter with Garmin’s groundbreaking G1000 glass panel suite, which debuted in Cessna single-engine planes but soon made its way as standard equipment into many dozens of aircraft models.
New digital solutions are constantly coming to the fore, with the FAA even adopting ADS-B, a new nationwide digital radar replacement that offers tremendously accurate aircraft position information, as well as free aviation weather, to anyone with an ADS-B In system installed. On top of that, a whole new breed of computer programs, called apps, made their way into aircraft cockpits around the world, allowing pilots amazingly capable and innovative navigation, flight management, data, weather and planning utilities that live and travel aboard inexpensive, compact and widely commercially available tablet computers.
What’s next? We can’t even begin to guess at what marvels the next decade might bring.
An increased share of the ramp for electric propulsion aircraft is a near certainty at this point, though how much of that market they take over could range from a tiny portion to all of it, depending on how far battery and charging technology progresses. Autonomous power management is already com- ing, and multi-copter craft, most of which will be autonomously controlled, are a likely part of our shared future. And if that sounds like less fun than tooling around in the kinds of planes most of us fly today, we have to agree.