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(E) The airplane and its first 100 years
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  11/22/2003 | Ideas | Unrated
(E) The airplane and its first 100 years

 

The Airplane - First 100 Years

 

By Michael KlesiusPhotographs by Joe McNally

The airplane has come a long way in its first hundred years. Fasten your seat belt for a high-tech ride into the next century of flight.

We take off into the radiance of a midwinter sun. Maj. Mark "Jocko" Johnson, a Marine Corps test pilot, shoves the throttles forward. Engines roaring, the U.S. Navy's newest and most advanced tactical aircraft, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, leaps down the runway with head-snapping acceleration. From the backseat, where I can just see over Jocko's helmet, I watch the expanse of Naval Air Station China Lake in the California desert rush at us. Our mounting speed feels like a truckload of sand pouring onto me. In less than half a mile the airplane springs aloft. Minutes later Jocko banks northward into the brown, bush-dotted fissures of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and we begin a terrain-hugging, gut-clutching ride at 540 knots—the speed of an airliner at cruise altitude. But we're only 500 feet (200 meters) above the folded landscape. He finesses the airplane through sharp turns and dodges mountain outcrops with the twitch of a wrist. When ridges appear in our path, he climbs, twists the aircraft onto its back, and curls above them, then holds us inverted for a brief count as we nose into the next valley. I tilt my head back and peer out the top of the canopy at the stony earth hurtling past.

Moths awakening in my stomach, I decline his next suggestion, something called the squirrel cage. Instead, he takes us into a high-speed loop, topping out near 20,000 feet (6,000 meters). As we plunge into the dive, with the frosted Sierra to our west and the toasted desert straight down, my queasiness suddenly vanishes. In its place, pure exuberance! I'm lost in the tumbling alchemy of earth and sky, my soul awash in the freedom, the audacity, the miracle of flight.

When powered flight turns a hundred on December 17, it's worth noting what an adventure flying still is in a world where commercial air travel has become routine, uncomfortable, sometimes torturous. On our way back to base I thank Jocko for taking me up. "I should be thanking you," he replies. "I was scheduled to fly a desk all day." His passion for his calling salutes a century of aviators all the way back to the Wright brothers, while his airplane heralds the next century of aviation. The Super Hornet and a few other new fighter planes exhibit the stealthy angles and coatings that make it difficult for radar to detect them, among aviation's most cutting-edge advances in design.

In contrast to the rapid progress in the military, the commercial airline industry has fastened its seat belts for serious economic turbulence, as evidenced by a string of layoffs and bankruptcies.

Few landings have been harder or higher profile than that of the Concorde, which just retired from service. Grounded with it is the hope for mass supersonic travel anytime soon. Instead, the Europeans are trading speed for size as they build a new superjumbo jet, the 555-seat A380.

In the 1950s airplanes got fast; in the 1980s they got stealthy; today they're getting smart. Brilliant, in fact. From the private four-seater to the massive A380, the airplane is evolving most dramatically on the inside.

In the military, computer automation has resulted in a new generation of airplanes called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, that fly without any pilots at all.

In commercial aviation the growth of automation has resulted in computers that already fly the plane from just after takeoff to landing, turning pilots into flight-systems managers. UAVs now spark debate over whether cargo planes and even airliners of the future could fly pilotless.

"Airplanes are now built to carry a pilot and a dog in the cockpit," says Arlen Rens, a Lockheed Martin test pilot. "The pilot's job is to feed the dog, and the dog's job is to bite the pilot if he touches anything."

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine

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