Looking at Aviation’s Past, Present, and Future

Dec 17, 2012

A photo of the first powered and controlled flight by the Wright Brothers' in 1903.

World-changing innovation doesn’t happen often, but it happened 109 years ago today when Orville and Wilbur Wright operated the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ success presents an opportunity to look at where aviation has come from, where it is now, and where it’s going.

A brief, 12-second flight was the genesis of an aviation industry that today supports millions of workers and adds trillions of dollars to the economy. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, “Economic activity attributed to civil aviation-related goods and services totaled $1.3 trillion in 2009, generating 10.2 million jobs.” In 2012, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, the aircraft industry will make over $216 billion in aircraft, parts, and equipment and pay over 629,000 workers.

The Wrights’ approach to innovation is with still with us today. While “few of the aeronautical innovations of the Wright Brothers are utilized today,” notes Joseph May at the Travel for Aircraft blog, their systematic development approach became the modern research and development method used by the aviation industry today. Think windtunnels, test flights, and mountains of data collected.

As for aviation’s future, a recent piece in Free Enterprise tells us to expect more innovations like greater fuel-efficiency:

“One thing driving innovation in engine manufacturing these days is efficiency,” says Brian Elson, vice president of Government Relations at Rolls-Royce North America, which builds jet engines for commercial aircraft. New engines are designed to fly farther and longer whiles using less fuel, the key factors being reliability and fuel burn, says Elson.

Carriers are also working to reduce fuel burn by using a variety of tactics, including removing excess weight from the cabin and craft and towing between gates. Several carriers have also made multi-billion dollar purchases of new more efficient aircraft, engineered to better conserve fuel.

Also in the future—assuming federal action doesn’t cause too many delays—we’ll have a NextGen air traffic control system powered by GPS to shorten trips, reduce delays, and increase safety.

Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, summed up why the Wright brothers are so beloved by Americans:

They became world figures essentially because of their genius and because of character traits—their strength of character, their determination, their perseverance, their striving to overcome obstacles and doing it and pursuing this thing to the end. Those are things that we admire in all people, and these guys were models of that sort of determination and perseverance.

Their success at defying gravity is a classic American success story.

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