Progress, Technology and the Future of Aviation
Why optimism, even though it’s in short supply, remains a critical ingredient to flight.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Jan 08, 2013
I was a panel member of a group of aviation journalists a few weeks back at a lunchtime meeting of the Wichita Aero Club, and the mood in the room was a little bleak. Even some of my fellow panelists were making dire predictions about the demise of general aviation. Everything good about what we do, they seemed to be saying, was behind us.
It’s nonsense. There’s unimaginably cool stuff in our future. Of this, I am certain.
More than a few years ago when I was a young teenager I was sitting at a window seat on a Boeing airliner (a 727?) low and slow over Fontana coming in for landing at Southern California’s Ontario International Airport. I was mesmerized as I watched the forward slats do their thing, extending out and down to create a nicely cambered shape where formerly there’d been a simple rounded leading edge. How cool was that?
I’d been around airplanes a lot by then — my part time job was pumping gas at my family’s FBO — and I knew enough to be able to figure out what was going on. Boeing had rigged up these elaborate leading edge devices designed to increase lift for landing (“For takeoff, too,” I wondered.) The result, I immediately understood, was to allow an airplane to fly fast at cruise with low drag while in essence making the wing a lot bigger for slower landing speeds.
Forty years ago there was a big push by light GA manufacturers, academics, kit developers and even amateur enthusiasts to use technology to make flying safer and more economical as well as to push the performance envelope. The resultant airplanes were mostly cool or at least cool looking, though in all fairness, a goodly number of them were nightmares.
As has long been the case, even the successful ones, like Burt Rutan’s Vari-Eze, incorporated compromises. While canards are relatively fast, their takeoff distance is typically longer than that of comparable conventional designs. You get some but you give some back. There were tradeoffs in construction materials, too. Composites were slippery and sleek but fairly heavy and hard to work. For every gain one clever idea had, there seemed to be an equal and often opposite downside. I wondered then, and I wonder now, is this always the case with innovation? Is there no getting ahead of the game? Maybe there’s no free lunch, okay, but how about a good-sized discount? Is that too much to ask?
For a lot of old-school aviation insiders, including some of my fellow panelists, the answer was yes; it was too much to ask.
I thought about the Boeing jet again with its leading edge slats. Wasn’t that a free lunch? Even as a kid I figured out what the downsides were: extra weight, complexity and maintenance. But in that case, weren’t the returns easily worth the effort? It was clear to me then and now that the answer is an emphatic “yes.”
Why not search for similar returns for light airplanes? For bizjets, for turboprops, heck, for hang gliders? It’s the height of arrogance to think we’ve solved all the problems inherent in flight.
If you don’t believe it just look around at the cool things done in the avionics arena by Garmin and Avidyne and Honeywell and Aspen with capabilities from traffic avoidance to envelope protection, and much, much more. Look at the iPad and the many economic and quality of life benefits it’s bestowed upon us. Think about Tamarack, with its uber-cool active winglets, which smartly dump lift to limit overstress while adding lift and range. Look at Cessna with its diesel 182 JTA, Gulfstream with its staggeringly innovative G650, GE with its next-gen fuel efficient engines and Cubcrafters with its Super Cub clone that makes the performance of the original look positively pedestrian.
Are there challenges to our industry and community? You bet! Costs, regulation, complexity, vanishing airspace and killer drones. But if we stop looking there, we miss the big picture.
Progress is everywhere, and flying is useful, practical and personally rewarding in ways that are so important to us pilots it’s often hard to express it.
With all these things being true, how could you not believe?