Ever since the first humans gazed skyward and began musing about the mystery of bird flight, the seeds were planted. It may have taken millennia but we got there: We taught ourselves to fly and changed the world in the process. In the grand scheme of things this was a good thing. Here are just a few of aviation’s contributions to the world:
- Aviation was—and is—a triumph of the imagination. To convert the primal desire to fly into reality took massive experimentation, most of it without the benefit of a body of rational thought. Flapping wings, tower-jumping, and man-powered airscrews didn’t make it. Curiously enough, it was the study of bird flight that triggered the first successful experiments in controlled flight. Not exactly cutting-edge (or was it?), but it was good enough for Lilienthal and the Wright brothers.
- Industrial sophistication. Once airplanes were more or less proven, their manufacture took the world of industry a few notches higher. It’s interesting that manufacturing of both automobiles and airplanes took place at nearly the same time. But airplanes are built quite differently than cars, and must adhere to more rigid technical standards. Which brings us to…
- Military applications. No doubt about it, wars have brought significant improvements and sophistication to aircraft design and manufacturing. World War II in particular saw a huge investment in aviation, and aviation manufacturing, with thousands of airplanes built in a matter of weeks. Where cavalry once stood at the apex of military prowess and stature, sophisticated aircraft took its place. Now aviation delivers the first strike, both tactically and strategically—with missiles, drones, and remotely guided air delivery systems increasingly taking the lead.
- Conflict, ironically, has also brought benefits. Once helicopters entered regular service in the Korean War, it was possible to quickly airlift the injured from battlefield to hospital. Result: fewer deaths. Today’s civilian Medevac and organ transplant services have been the chief beneficiaries.
- Symbols of national pride. What self-respecting nation doesn’t have its own airline? Nationalized air carriers aren’t so common anymore, but having an airline branded with a national imprint—think American (or Pan American), Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways—is still of vital importance to a nation’s collective ego. The bigger the airliner, the better.
- Shrinking distances, disappearing borders. It sounds trite, but air travel really has brought the world closer together. Before the airplane, it took a week or more to travel by ship from North America to Europe, and even longer to cross the United States by automobile—assuming no breakdowns or impassable roads. Now it’s a matter of hours. With this has come greater interaction among cultures, increased intra- and international business, and faster development of common trends.
- Technological progress. Apart from strictly aviation applications such as aerodynamics, aviation has also contributed no small share of derivative technologies. Fly-by-wire control systems, automated navigation, GPS navigation, the gyroscope, anti-skid systems, infrared and synthetic vision, metal behavior under thermal or mechanical stress, and, by extension, the biological influences of microgravity and weightlessness are just a few. Which brings us to….
- Space travel. How could we have gone to the moon without a firm background in aviation? Again, national will and prestige are vital, but so is the kind of ingenuity demonstrated by aviation’s first pioneers. What began with wing-warping is now progressing along a continuum to voyage among the planets—and beyond.
Thomas A. Horne
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.