The profound effects of the efforts of Orville and Wilbur Wright are so closely bound up with our lives that it is almost impossible to understand them. It will take another century before philosophers will be able to assess exactly what the total impact of aviation has been upon the world. The impact upon individuals is easier to assess, as it is a very personal one.

It is possible even at the present to pick out the key developments that derive from the fragile wings of the Wright Flyer. The first is in the realm of the military. The airplane went from a device to “see on the other side of the hill” in 1908 to a war-winning deliverer of nuclear weapons in 1945. Since then the aircraft has been used to conduct minor and deter major wars, the latter being far more important.

B-47 photo from the book,

There is a political corollary to the military use of aircraft. Before World War II, Germany and Italy used the threat of bombing as a brutal diplomatic tool to secure demands. After World War II, especially in the Middle East, aircraft became the vehicle for the shuttle diplomacy that proved effective in maintaining peace or settling conflicts.

The military requirement for the airplane was also the goad behind the demand for advances in all the sciences, from astronomy to chemistry to physics and beyond. It had its greatest impact upon the development of the computer, now in the process of its own revolution, the effect of which may surpass that of the aircraft.

But of all the many effects of aircraft, it is the large jet transport that has changed the world most. Where international travel had once been the privilege of the elite, it is now available to virtually everyone. The world became a smaller, more easily understood place, and while there is still no universal peace, it may yet come about through this understanding.

Raytheon 800 XP, by Paul Rowen Photography

Ironically, for the individual aviation buff, all of the elements cited above are important, but incidental to the pure love that is felt for all aircraft. That love–like all true love–is impossible to explain, but it is sincere and lasting, and extends to everything from an aging Piper Cub to the latest jetfighter. If, when an aircraft passes overhead, you stop and look up, you know exactly what I mean.

Walter Boyne, retired USAF Colonel, former Director of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, historian and author of 28 books with fiction and non-fiction on the best sellers list of the New York Times.