Miracle: A view of flight as it turns 100

Inventions seldom resemble the refined devices that evolve from them

INVENTIONS SELDOM RESEMBLE THE REFINED DEVICES that evolve from them. Robert Goddard’s first rocket looked like a moonshiner’s still. The first transistor could have been the product of some eighth grader’s soldering gun. When they began experimenting with controlled, powered flight, the Wrights had no idea what the airplane would become. In fact, no one could have gazed at their 1903 Flyer and imagined what airplanes would look like after a hundred years.

Nor could anyone who witnessed that December 17, 1903 hop of 120 feet from one patch of sand to another have known what the airplane would come to mean to the world. Not until the second world war was over did it become clear that the airplane was evolving into the preeminent form of civil transportation, moving people and everything else.

Military aircraft have been one of the foremost examples of technological development aimed at extracting maximum performance. Tactical aircraft fly fast, make plenty of noise, and draw a lot of attention, but in this century of flight, humankind in overwhelming numbers has availed itself of the airplane mainly for the simple act of going somewhere—it’s the one way aviation touches most of us. AvData, a Wichita, Kansas company that maintains a census of aircraft populations, estimates the current size of the civil fleet worldwide at about 400,000—five times the military count. In the United States the disparity is even greater: 285,000 to 13,170 (roughly 20 to one).

The growth of air transportation began to accelerate after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo transatlantic flight demonstrated the value of the airplane for commerce. Once the turbojet engine graduated from the military environment, which accepted greater risks in its use, to the grinding daily test of reliability that is modern airline operations, the technology multiplied the productivity of the airliner, and air fares became affordable to almost everyone. The jet engine also allowed designers to scale up airliners to jumbo size—another incremental economic bonanza—and there seems to be no upper limit to their growth.

Once the jets arrived, we fell head over heels in love with flying. Jet airliners took us far above the weather, making most trips utterly sensation-free. Oh, we may feel a brief acceleration on takeoff and a jolt or two on landing, and if we should fly through a little turbulence, chances are the captain will tell us how sorry he is for the “bumpy air.” But for the most part, the only thrills aboard come from the inflight movie.

A hundred years after the first flight, we expect to leave one coast of the United States and reach the other six hours later, to disembark halfway around the world after less than a day of flying, and to rely on air travel to let us freely enter all but a handful of nations to conduct business or pursue pleasure. Destinations advertise the thrill of being there, while the actual trip by airplane has become a footnote. There is nothing magical, after all, about any of this; we live in a time when seat-miles are just a commodity. (And by the way, we also expect fares to stay flat year after year.)

The airplanes that carry us to the farthest reaches of the globe have become as predictable as a high school physics experiment. Engines run seemingly forever, with tens of thousands of hours stretching between major overhauls. The applied sciences of aerodynamics and manufacture are so refined that before the first metal is cut, the performance of a given part or system can be predicted within a percentage point. The softer disciplines, such as interior design, ensure that lighting, textures, and colors soothe us and immerse us in familiarity, and so each flight seems the same as the last.

It has taken us a hundred years to do it, but when you compare air travel today to the way our grandfathers got around in 1903, it’s not an exaggeration to say that we’ve created the perfect transportation system—“perfect” as defined by: so little room for improvement that improvement may well not be worth the trouble. And if the price of perfection is that the thrill is gone, well…so be it, we say. When it comes to flying, we don’t like surprises. If both Orville and Wilbur experienced jolts of adrenaline during their first flights, we’ll have none of that, thanks.

Maybe the biggest change in us after 100 years is that we hardly give the role flight plays in our lives a second thought. So it’s not easy to persuade anyone in the year 2003 to look upon all that has happened as some kind of miracle. If we paused for just a moment to think about it, though, a miracle is exactly what it is. We human beings may have invented the airplane, but it, in turn, has reinvented us.

—The editors



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