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.
Steve 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