Aviation’s Singular Moments: What’s Next?

By Scott Spangler on August 28th, 2012

Reading Neil Armstrong’s obit in the New York Times led to an unexpected epiphany: As the inaugural pioneers, the collective public faces of singular accomplishments achieved during the first century of powered flight pass, what events of equivalent magnitude will follow them in its second century? And will humans have a hands-on role equal to Armstrong’s?

Achieving a singular first during flight’s first century was comparatively easy because no one preceded the successful pioneer. The brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, powered their way skyward. Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, solo and unrefueled. Jimmy Doolittle took off, flew a pattern, and landed without a way to look outside. Yuri Gagarin opened the door to space travel and Neil Armstrong walked through it on the moon.

The passage of time lists the pioneers who will be next. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yager circled the globe without refueling the Voyager in 1986, and Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones repeated the voyage in an aerostat in 1999.

clip_image001Steve Fossett closed flight’s first century with a singular first in 2002 and inaugurated the second in 2005, when he, respectively, made the first solo circumnavigations of the globe in a balloon and fixed-wing aircraft. And in 2007 he succumbed, like so many others, not in pursuit of a singular first but in the prosaic pursuit of flight.

With these first achieved and celebrated, conceiving what firsts remain for humans to achieve surely equals the rigorous investment of time, money, and technology needed to achieve them. For several reasons, there is the distinct possibility that a human’s participation will be remote rather than direct.

Risk and technology are countervailing values in aviation. Risk is all the pioneers had to invest in their development of technology that now makes hands-on singular firsts more about ego than advancement. Flying to Mars seems a perfect example. The Curiosity rover seems to be doing well, and impatient scientists don’t have to worry about humans collecting the correct sample or wait for them to return with them.

This reality suggests shift in focus for singular aviation firsts from the global stage to the individual. And here, pioneers like Neil Armstrong again set the poignant example. Inspired by a boyhood Ford Tri-Motor flight in 1936, Armstrong learned to fly at 15 not because he presciently saw his lunar future but because to him, it was more important than this driver’s license. –Scott

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12 Responses to “Aviation’s Singular Moments: What’s Next?”

  1. Covington Aircraft Says:

    As aviation design became more sophisticated, the creation of long-range flying boats began to increase throughout the 1930s. Check out the latest blog post in our “History of the Flying Boat” series! http://blog.covingtonaircraft.com/2012/08/29/history-of-the-flying-boat-part-three/

  2. Tom Says:

    I fear the next pioneers will come from China. The US no longer wants to be a leader in aero/space.

  3. Roger Hasltead Says:

    It’s not that the US doesn’t want to be a leader and we have many people who can or could be. The problem is our leaders no longer believe in US exceptionalism, or the individual’s choice to excel.

    I do believe that future generations will bring that exceptionalism back if they do not become addicted to entitlements.

  4. Joseph Says:

    In the future there will be precious few “pioneers” as we knew them… a recent article about an undergrad at Embry-Riddel explains why: he wasn’t interested in becoming a pilot… it was far more interesting to program and operate UAV’s.

  5. Tom Says:

    Scott, you bring up an excellent point. Nicely written too! I believe that the shift in focus has to do with a declining emphasis in exploration or the will and reward to be first.

  6. John A. McCann Says:

    Don’t worry, America will be back. Ford needs to buy Beechcraft. I can see it now a Turbo 427 COBRA Baron and Bonanza. Seriously, Ford has the technology to transform the General Aviation World.

  7. Carl Gerker Says:

    The US is not lacking interest in exploration, but others in the world expect the US to bail them out, feed them and pay ransom to rogue governments who fail the take care of their people, we eventually run short of cash. It is not that we are superior of nationalistic as accused by many dictatorships around the globe. They are always there with their hands open wide for the handouts.
    The current administration even stated they don’t want the US to be the big man on the block anymore

  8. Rusty Says:

    Didn’t a bunch of college kids here just fly the first human-powered helicopter? How about SpaceShip 1 and now Virgin Galactic (not to mention all of their competitors?) Cool things are still happening that inspire MY kids, anyway…

  9. Peter Says:

    I wonder what it must have felt like back when kids could dream of becoming astronauts.
    You have to be born in one of two countries now, to be able to aspire to that.
    It’s truly tragic, since Armstrong set foot on the moon, we haven’t been able to go any further, and any plans to recreate the same feat, or to go even further and fly a manned Mars mission are snuffed out by short-sighted politcians.
    What was it Kennedy said? Let’s go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard. Fast forward 50 years and we’re supposed to be excited by the pictures taken by a robot because we can’t afford to invest in the engineering to send a manned mission? Bullshit. Why climb Everest? Because it’s there. Why go to Mars? Same reason.

  10. Jennifer Says:

    When I was in high school, many moons ago, I was taking flying lessons and wanted to fly commercially or for the Air Force. A guest speaker at a “career day” assembly heard that I liked airplanes, and condescendingly asked me if I wanted to be a stewardess. Into his microphone, in front of the whole auditorium, I stated emphatically “NO! I’m going to be a pilot!” He was a bit shocked. This was still well before women were really accepted doing “men’s work”…
    Anyway, the point is that the spirit of adventure and curiosity burns just as brightly in many women as it does in men. It just doesn’t get recognized or encouraged as often. For example, you didn’t mention Jackie Cochran and her intrepid WASPS, who did what the masses (and most of the military) said could not be done during WWII. How fortunate that they stepped up to a very high and discrimintory plate because they saved the fee world’s bacon! That took real courage and the willingness to pursue personal dreams in the face of terrific opposition. It should be held up as a fantastic example of the spirit of aviation.
    In a similar light, GeneNora Jessen and six other women were in the original astronaut training program and were scheduled to accompany men to the moon – until NASA decided to can them. Why? Because they weren’t men, that’s why! History has all but forgotten these women, not because they were on track to do less than their male counterparts, but because a very chauvinist establishment shoved them under the glass ceiling and silence in the av community sealed their fate. Not telling their stories perpetuates the impression that women are less involved, less important, less capable and less interesting than men in aviation. We aren’t.

    With aviation struggling on many levels, can we afford to not pay attention to women in the field? I think the answer is pretty obvious. Women and men together will make the difference, not either group alone. So, please, let’s do a better job of seeing women in the cockpit. That absolutely doesn’t meant to dumb anything down or make men step aside, it simply means to remember that the more of us there are in the sky, the bigger and more secure the aviation pie will be for all. So, in the spirit of curiosity and adventure, let’s focus on bringing ALL of the exceptionals in this great land together, as equals, to keep aviation alive and well and progressing in America, ‘just because we can”!

  11. Joseph Says:

    Peter, it is now one of THREE countries (and soon a fourth) where people can aspire to be astronauts.

    BTW, the only reason Armstrong landed on the moon was because of the Cold War. No Cold War, no lunar missions – simple as that. As soon as we roundly “defeated” the Soviets in the “space race” NASA funding withered.

    Few people realize that only 1/10th of a penny of our tax dollars go to fund NASA… more is spent on lip balm in this country on an annual basis… yet Congress is always trying to cut NASA funding.

    I highly recommend reading “Space Chronicles” by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

  12. rip Says:

    Thank you for your accomplishments Mr. Armstrong. We are all very proud of you. R.I.P.

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