Today is the 110th anniversary of the first powered flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. This anniversary is a good jumping-off point to reflect on how far aviation has come in the past 110 years.
It seems like just yesterday that I was standing in the cold rain at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills exactly 10 years ago, waiting for the moment when Kevin Kochersberger would attempt to re-create Orville’s first flight in the incredibly accurate replica Wright Flyer built by Ken Hyde and his team at The Wright Experience. While the Flyer barely lifted off the takeoff rail, hampered by ignition problems due to the water coming off the rail and the lack of a strong wind, it was an amazing event, shared by thousands.
During my flying career, I have been enormously privileged, earning my private pilot certificate in exchange for working as a lineboy at a small FBO (King Aviation in Taunton, Mass.), working at my father’s flight school (Plymouth Air Services) and earning my CFI, then breaking into the aviation journalism business. My flying adventures include many criss-crossings of the U.S. in light airplanes, delivering a Piper Warrior across the Atlantic to the UK and two summers of swordfish spotting off the East Coast while in college.
Being a pilot has allowed me to fly in near-formation with airliners while landing at Flushing Airport (now closed) in New York City, without ever talking to an air traffic controller. Or taking girls on dinner dates to Nantucket. Or wooing my beautiful (then-future) wife during a flying picnic trip to Santa Catalina Island.
Now, despite all the gloom-and-doom we keep nattering on about general aviation, think about what we can do. In about 20 seconds, I can log onto the SchedulePointe website from my always-connected computer and see which airplanes are available at my local flight school (Justice Aviation in Santa Monica, Calif.). I can quickly pick an airplane and book a flight. The choices are fairly amazing, ranging from an ordinary Cessna 172 with what we derisively term “steam-gauge” instruments (but with a moving-map GPS) to a 172 with a glass cockpit more sophisticated than those of most airliners. There is also an all-composite two-seat Pipistrel Alpha Trainer, powered by a liquid-cooled Rotax engine, with steam-gauge instruments that are all represented by electronic displays. The Alpha has a ballistic parachute for the worst-case emergency situation.
Before taking off, I can whip out my Apple iPad and get a detailed weather briefing, with hourly reports and forecasts for most of the airports nearby. I can view live radar to see where it’s raining and thundering.
Once at the airport, thanks to the GPS constellation, my iPad shows my little airplane symbol taxiing around the airport, then tracks my progress in the air on a moving-map. I can see exactly where my airplane is in relation to airspace boundaries (even though the FAA thinks I shouldn’t be using my iPad for this purpose). Every piece of information about airports, airspace and geographic features is available instantly, and the iPad even displays terrain and obstacle hazards in relation to my position and altitude. By connecting to an external device, the iPad displays updated weather information and airborne traffic.
After landing, I can gas up at a convenient self-serve gas pump, using gasoline specially formulated for aircraft engines (although this leaded fuel is likely going to be replaced in the not-too-distant future). I’ll park the airplane, give the keys back to the flight school, pay my bill (which incidentally pretty much matches the rate of inflation since the 1960s) and drive home.
Someday if I’m inclined, I could build my own airplane and fly it in the same airspace as an Airbus A380 carrying nearly 600 people. Or I could restore an antique biplane and fly it across the U.S. without having to ask for permission from the authorities. Or I could pilot my own business jet around the world. I’m confident that the infrastructure that enables all this amazing activity will still be around in some form for the next 110 years.
What would the Wright brothers think about aviation today?