The Quiet March of Technology

An oft-used idiom to describe how quietly Progress changes the way we do things is that it does so one day at a time. Gradually we find ourselves wondering how it is that we have come so far while noticing so little about how our working environment has changed down the years.

Recently, partly in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the first scheduled airline flight and partly in recognition of it’s own anniversary, Aviation Week & Space Technology published a lengthy feature on milestones in air transport since that first flight by Tony Jannus from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa, on January 1st, 1914. Virtually all of the milestones mentioned chronicle the progress of airframe and powerplant technology, with little mention of the human airmanship that was necessary to ensure that the new technology could be used safely and profitably (even with this shortcoming, I recommend the article to any professional who considers knowledge of the heritage of aviation to be part of their overall professional profile).

Guy Norris, the author, lists just a few of the key innovations and aerodynamic concepts of the past century that factor into the vast majority of flight legs flown in modern aviation:

  • Cantilever Monoplanes
  • Engine-cooling drag
  • Streamlining and stressed skin
  • Pressurization
  • Compressibility
  • Sweepback
  • Fatigue life and fail safe
  • Supercritical wings
  • Winglets
  • Laminar flow
  • Power-assisted controls
  • Fly-by-wire
  • Advanced alloys and composites

When I read this piece in the magazine I had to pause several times to assess how much (or, truthfully, how little) I knew about several of these milestones, and pledged to learn more in the coming year about things I think I ought to know more about. For a few days I found myself thinking about how much of what has happened in aviation up until now actually still matters. Maybe appreciating this fact has little to do with things I actually do in the cockpit…but on the other hand, to do it better might involve a broader understanding of these things that I take for granted because they seem to be “built into” the many processes that aviation is comprised of in 2015-2016.

My thoughts on the subject of innovation, as a pilot and instructor in both military and civil settings over my 30-year career in aviation, naturally orbit around the development and evolution of flying from the human point of view—airmanship, to keep it simple. The list of innovations that I think mean the most to airmanship over the past 100 years include:

  • The Sperry Gyro-Stabilizer, allowing control to be shared between humans and automation
  • The combination of pitot-static instruments with gyro-stabilization technology and accurate time instruments for use by pilots and crew in all-weather conditions and at night
  • The “basic T” layout of flight instruments, allowing flight path information to be displayed and read with speed and accuracy
  • Ground-based navigation systems for both all-weather and long-distance flying
  • Modern training protocols tailored to increasingly complex aircraft and systems
  • Hi-fidelity Flight Simulation to allow for safe and economical practice
  • Flight deck workload diffusion through human and then human/automatic collaboration on the flight deck
  • Digital-Electronic technology across all aviation systems, allowing for more precise flight in a more reliable information environment

There are a many more, and I’m sure you have a few thoughts of your own. I invite you to suggest to the community that participates in this forum those airmanship innovations that mean the most to you. Maybe from there, we can all improve our airmanship by connecting what we do today with the pioneers and innovators who experienced these advances for the first time, going back a century, to that first flight on New Years day, 1914.

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first

Guy Norris: “Wings Around the World” Airliner technology milestones and the moving story of air transport. Aviation Week and Space Technology, October 26-November 8, Volume 177 Number 21. New York, NY. 2015. Pp. 52-59.

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