by Walter Boyne

What must have it been like in the early 1930s, when the big boom in aviation was beginning to transform the wood, wire and fabric biplanes of the past into the sleek all metal monoplanes of the future? Think of the possibilities of the records to be broken then, just within the reach of almost anyone, and think of the heroes that emerged to take advantage of those opportunities, the Granville Brothers, Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes, so many more.

Ah, those were the good old days. Will they ever come again? Will there be aviation heroes of the Twenty-first Century as there were heroes of the Twentieth? The first reaction is to say no, it’s impossible. Things have apparently grown too complex, aircraft designs are too computerized, engineering design teams are too big, and all the records have been set. But this is dead wrong. The correct answer is absolutely yes, for three reasons.

The first is that relatively, everything in the human condition (people, relationships, economics, desire, egos, you name it) remains the same, no matter what the time period.

Take a look at some pictures of Doolittle at Cleveland, standing by the Gee Bee R 2, one or another of the Granville brothers talking to him, some other mechanics working on the aircraft. Then, if you had the pictures, you could look further down the line, perhaps at Bob Hall and the gorgeous Hall Bulldog, or Roscoe Turner and his Wedell-Williams. Every picture would show you pretty much the same thing: smart young guys, working for practically nothing, slaving away to get those racers in the air, so that they could win a prize and maybe, just maybe, get into production. Everyone was in the same boat in regard to their financial backing (slim) education (with the exception of Hall and Lindbergh, slight) and sartorial elegance (with the exception of Turner, every turned out in oily pants and shirts.)

Today, and for the future, everyone will also be pretty much in the same boat-better educated, better financed and better dressed, probably than the Cleveland Air Race era, but the participants will all be equivalent, and all will have the same desire to succeed in whatever branch of aviation they are in. It may not be racing around pylons, but it might be establishing a new speed or distance record for gliders, or a new altitude record for parachute jumping (someone is seeking to break Joe Kittinger’s record as this is written) or a new round-the-world upside down record.

The second reason is that we are just in the beginning of the computer revolution. In terms of design, instead of computers making the aircraft design process too complex, new programs will permit an intuitive approach to aircraft design that has not been possible for many decades. Working with fail-safe computers, designers will be able to push the limits of their imagination, and arrive at safe solution without risking their necks. And just as Clyde Cessna, or Walter Beech or Lance Neibauer stood at the gaming table of aircraft manufacture, picked up the dice and threw a magic seven, so will young designers of the future be able to bring their ideas to fruition.

Computers will also increase the number of pilots available by a factor of four or more. You’ll recall Moore’s Law, which states that the power of a computer (in terms of transistors per square inch) would double every year. Well Moore’s Law is about to be repealed as inadequate for new nano-engineering techniques will boost the speed, power and versatility of computers asymptotically. For the would-be pilot, the legend of the future, this means that he or she will be able to purchase a relatively inexpensive aircraft, equipped with dozens of redundant computers, and be able to fly it with no previous training. The aircraft will be pre-programmed to fly just as the Global Hawk is pre-programmed to fly today, only on an infinitely more sophisticated basis. The new computer-laden planes will enable a pilot to learn to fly gradually, a bit at a time, until he or she can take over completely from the computers. Built of composite materials and flown at speeds that make it virtually crash-proof, aviation will become the sport it always should have been, a social setting where men and women can enjoy participating together.

The third reason is that there will be a general increase in prosperity around the world as the United States, as a technologically dominant superpower, creates a Pax Americana that should last for a century or more. Concerted efforts to raise the level of prosperity in Muslim nations will be part of the general effort to contain terror; in doing so, entire new markets will open in Asia and the Middle East. In Africa, the eventual introduction of scientific farming-including genetically engineered crops, will endow a similar prosperity. And when prosperity comes, so do means of transportation. In the twentieth century, the people of a newly emerging country would seek to have bicycles, then scooters, then cars and trucks. In the twenty-first century, the newly prosperous millions will want automobiles and need airplanes, and this means that all current estimates of aviation activity-whether it is passenger miles traveled, airliners purchased, or the number of private pilots-are much too low.

Some of the legends will be made, and records broken, by aviators who transition into being astronauts. This process is already underway with some of the X-Prize contestants. Burt Rutan is taking twenty-first aircraft design into the edge of space with extraordinary White Knight. The exotic White Knight will act as a mother craft for a genuine-if short term-space craft. Paul MacCready’s Heliopolis, although not a manned aircraft, represents another point on the incredible spectrum of twenty-first century flight, all of it open to the young men and women just entering the business.

The real question is this: will it be possible for aviators of the Twenty-Second Century to become legends and record-breakers like the aviators of the Twenty-First? (Once again, the answer will be yes.)