Strategies, Options & Perspectives: Second Century Of Flight

 - January 31, 2007, 8:44 AM

Flight’s second century began Dec. 17, 2003, at 10:35 a.m., 100 years to the minute from Orville Wright’s momentous launch of the first powered airplane. Much fanfare, including participation by the President, attended the marking of that moment at Kitty Hawk, N.C., last month. Led by the Experimental Aircraft Association, presented by Ford Motor and supported by Microsoft Flight Simulator, Eclipse Aviation and Northrop Grumman, an exact replica of the Wright Flyer built by Ken Hyde was poised to take flight before a crowd estimated at 35,000. The onlookers’ enthusiasm remained resolute despite the uncooperative weather that kept the replica from soaring. Scott Crossfield, the first man to exceed twice the speed of sound, had supervised training of the two aviators selected to pilot the Flyer, and Kevin Kochersberger was chosen for the enactment flight by the toss of a coin, just as the Wrights had done a century before. But alas, some things defy duplication.

As I watched and recalled that the Wrights’ biography was required reading for all engineering students at Princeton University nearly 50 years ago, I wondered if the accomplishments of the next century would eclipse the aeronautical events that occurred since the brothers launched the age of aviation on the windy dunes of Kill Devil Hill in 1903. Or has aviation seen its greatest days? So much happened in the last 100 years: aircraft transitioned from fragile homebuilts to marvels of mass production. Once the stuff of daredevils, today aviation is the backbone of our nation’s medium and long-range transportation system–the safest form of travel other than walking. Military strategy and tactics rely on airpower. Nearly 10 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product results from aviation. Is it possible for flight to contribute more in the years ahead?

I believe it is. In particular, great opportunities lie ahead in the area of short-range transportation and in the broader use of general aviation for business travel.
While aviation is 100 years old, business aviation is much younger. Only a handful of companies owned aircraft about the time of Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight from New York to Paris in 1927, and then mostly for promotional purposes. It took World War II and the experiences of men such as General Lucas Clay to bring aviation into the realm of executive travel for corporate America. The first turbine-powered aircraft specifically designed for general aviation emerged only about 40 years ago, and even today there are fewer than 10,000 U.S. companies operating turbine aircraft for business. While 10,000 is not an insignificant number, it is about 10 percent of the number of firms that could be using business aviation. Even counting the companies that charter aircraft, we are penetrating less than a quarter of the potential market for business travel via general aviation aircraft.

Technology is enhancing the advantages of business aviation. Advanced powerplants such as the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW600 series and the Williams International FJ33 are spawning a new class of smaller business jets that are projected to have operating costs of less than $1 per mile. With such aircraft, which are designed to carry five to six passengers and operate from many more general aviation airports than currently available to existing jets, entrepreneurs envision a network of these smaller vehicles providing the aerial equivalent of the Yellow Cab. Software programs that evaluate travel patterns and predict demand are being developed to help design the most efficient positioning of aircraft within the network. We will see a new dimension of air transportation available to companies, as well as individuals, within the next five years or less.

Creative applications of computer technology will lead to advancements in airspace management and control, as well as much greater capacity, without compromising safety. More sophisticated flight management systems will integrate with the future ATC infrastructure, and pilots will be managers of highly automated aircraft. Don’t rule out remotely controlled aircraft operating within the airspace.

The market for general aviation as a means of personal travel is equally exciting, and potentially much larger than that for business aviation. When the Wrights took to the air a century ago, very few anticipated the explosive growth of the automobile. It was in 1903 that the first car–a 20-horsepower Winton–was driven across the U.S., and at that time there was less than 200 miles worth of paved road in our nation. Today more than 200 million cars are on our roads, nearly 15 million new autos and trucks are sold annually in the U.S., half of U.S. households own two or more cars and nearly everyone over the age of 17 either has or has had a driver’s license. In stark contrast to the acceptance of automobiles by the American public, less than one quarter of one percent of our nation’s population has any form of pilot certificate.

As aircraft that are easier to fly and less costly to own and operate are designed, more individuals will become aviators and will use general aviation for personal and business travel. Surely the technology that enables a cruise missile to hit a target the size of a doorway after a flight of a thousand miles can be applied to make a private aircraft easier to operate by the average citizen. Once personal aircraft operate with anywhere near the ease and predictability of an automobile, the demand for such vehicles will expand exponentially, with resulting reductions in cost of acquisition. (Before Henry Ford introduced the mass-produced Model T in 1909, the typical auto cost five to six times what an average American earned in a year.)

We all are beneficiary of the Wrights’ ingenuity, courage and vision. The second century of flight, particularly regarding aviation’s applications to business and personal transportation, will be influenced by the ingenuity of today’s aviators and their vision of the future.

The first century of flight witnessed fabulous achievements. There is still much to be accomplished and with willingness to advocate the benefits of air transportation, flight’s second century will be even more impressive.

Jack Olcott is the immediate past president of NBAA.