As the official keeper of US aviation world records, the National Aeronautic Association each year lists the previous year’s most memorable records ratified by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). Most years the most memorable are pretty mundane, incremental gains in speed and altitude by aircraft that earn their keep in commercial service. While important achievements, they lack a real sense of adventure.
Which is why 2012 was a banner year. Leading the list is Felix Baumgartner’s 4-minute, 20-second, 119,431-foot freefall that topped out at 843 mph. His supersonic fall not only broke Joe Kittinger’s 1962 record, he set another record online with millions worldwide who watched him set the record live (and I didn’t get a lot of work done that day), and millions continue to watch it on YouTube.
No less remarkable is the indoor 1-minute, 5.1 second flight of the Gamera II, the University of Maryland’s human-powered helicopter. Flying a straight-line distance of 474 miles seems unremarkable, unless you do it like Dustin Martin did, with a Wills Wing T2C hang glider, in 11 hours. What most don’t know is that Martin was competing with another pilot, Jonny Durand, on what was essentially a flight of two. (The New York Times did a riveting piece on their flight.)
What makes the 35-mile distance goal and return record important to aviation is that John Ellias and Dean Gradwell were flying nearly identical MXC kit-built remote-control model gliders, which have a 13-foot wingspan. It’s another example that you don’t need to sit in an airplane to fly, and that anyone can set a record by pursuing their passion.
The with-the-wind west-to-east transcontinental 599 mph speed dash set in 2012 by a Gulfstream G150 is another attention getting record, and it will help sell a lot of business jets, which is good for the aviation industry as a whole. I’d wager, however, that this 3-hour, 26-minute flight from Santa Ana, California, to Hilton Head International in Georgia was nowhere near as exciting as Will Whiteside’s 15-kilometer flight over Interstate 505 west of Sacramento, California. It’s only a guess, but I doubt that his Russian Yak 3, the final variant of the World War II fighter, doesn’t have an autopilot or flight director. It does, however, have an upgraded 1,750-hp Pratt & Whitney R2000 engine that was used on the DC-4.
Ultimately, the most important aspect of NAA’s annual list of the most memorable records is the continuation of an aviation tradition of improvement. No matter how far we’ve come, we still have places to go. –Scott Spangler, Editor