In the February 1908 Scientific American, Wilbur Wright wrote in Flying as Sport that up to that time “men have taken up flying partly from scientific interest, partly from sport, and partly from business reasons….” But recreational aviation would grow because “flying possesses attractions which will appeal to many persons with a force beyond that exercised by any of the similar sports, such as boating, cycling, or automobiling.”
Desire is what would fuel this growth: “Though methods of travel have been greatly improved in the many centuries preceding our own, men have never ceased to envy the birds and long for the day when they too might rise above the dust or mud of the highways and fly through the clean air of the heavens. Once above the treetops, the narrow roads no longer arbitrarily fix the course. The earth is spread out before the eye with a richness of color and beauty of pattern never imagined by those who have gazed at the landscape edgewise only.”
That’s how many of us think of flying today because, according to FAA data, most general aviation pilots fly for “personal” reasons, which is all flight that doesn’t fit into other categories like business and corporate travel, ag flying, and flight training. But what’s the reality? What would Wilbur write now, in the second century of powered flight? What would he think of the investment of time and money needed to “rise above the dust or mud of the highways,” and would he be surprised that the ever dwindling number of pilots pales in comparison to the people involved in recreational boating, cycling, and automobiling?
Probably not. Sure, Wilbur was a passionate pilot, but everything I’ve read about him and his brother, Orville, suggests that he was a pragmatist first. Regardless of the desired outcome, he accepted the reality of his work, and then tried something else to achieve the brothers’ shared aerial goals.
Aviators today must do the same. Flying today isn’t what it was 50, 25, or even 10 years ago. It’s a mature industry coalescing around three primary missions: mass transportation (the airlines), personal transportation (embodied by owner-flown technologically advanced piston and jet aircraft), and recreation (whose survival lies with sport pilot/light-sport aircraft).
To see where aviation is going, Wilbur would likely cast a pragmatic eye on the last half century. As a scientist and businessman he would likely celebrate technology’s contribution to efficient flight and the growth of personal transportation. But what would he say about the spread of airport congestion that comes with this growth, and the accompanying spread of computer-controlled airspace?
And what would Wilbur say now about flying as sport? That technology is the passport to the next generation of airspace, open to all who can afford it? Would he redefine recreational flying as an exercise in programming a GPS guided flight? Or would he see flying for fun going the way of recreational boating, cycling, and automobiling, limited to small areas dedicated solely to that activity?
Given the challenges that face flying as sport, perhaps a more important question is this: What would Wilbur do? — Scott Spangler