Monday, December 1, 2003

The Wonder Machine

100 YEARS OF FLIGHT

By Stephen Till

As I am sitting at my computer writing this, I could, at any moment, get up from my desk chair, get in my car with my wife, drive to my local airport in Massachusetts, rent a small airplane like that shown in Figure A, and fly ourselves to California to visit our daughter in Santa Barbara.

FIGURE A

Stephen Till stands beside a small airplane. (click for larger image)

I would like to spend a few minutes explaining the three things that make this remarkable fact possible.

First we should look at the technology.

We need to acknowledge the two young entrepreneurs who started this whole ball of wax. I am referring to the Wright brothers. They took the best technology they could get their hands on, and used their knowledge and skilled hands to produce a man carrying gasoline-powered flying machine. They were the first of many people who helped develop manned flight from a dream into a very practical reality.

Aircraft in the twenties, thirties and forties were the playthings of the rich or extensions of the national will. However, after the Second World War, aircraft manufacturers produced many inexpensive personal aircraft with an eye to the average citizen. These manufacturers were not the only people making airplanes. The "homebuilding" movement, which started in the fifties, made possible the design, construction and flying of many varied and innovative personal aircraft by people with modest incomes and great ideas.

Today personal aircraft are built in many ways, using myriad techniques from the traditional "rag and tube" construction invented in the twenties to forming modern composites. The price range for small aircraft runs from a few thousand for a kit aircraft that you can build and fly yourself to several hundred thousand for a smooth aerodynamically advanced factory built aircraft with state of the art instrumentation.

Second we should look at the airspace.

It is amazing that we can fly two thousand miles to Santa Barbara without much preparation or paperwork.

We wouldn't need to do much preparation because there is a complex, yet easy-to-use set of navigational aids, which will help me find my way to the West Coast. There are also numerous airports along the way where I can buy food, gas and get the government-provided weather forecast for my route.