Yesterday’s view of today

Aug 12, 2018 - 2:45 PM

I was dragging six boxes of musty aviation magazines to the curb for recycling when nostalgia got the better of me. I grabbed a 1977-vintage Aircraft Directory off the pile for a last look.

One article summarized a NASA Outlook for Aeronautics report (“Aero Outlook” for short), compiled by “a great many experts in government, industry, universities, and other segments of the aeronautical research community.” It addressed prospects for civil and military aviation through the end of the millennium and beyond. I couldn’t wait to have a look.

The experts couldn’t prognosticate about air transportation without guessing at how humanity overall would handle the next few decades. So, even as the first great energy crisis was gathering steam, NASA took this stab at it: “Population expansion will be accompanied by increased per capita income and greater leisure time, as Japan and the nations of the West experience continued economic improvement.” I’m still waiting for that “greater leisure time” to kick in.

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However, the report was clairvoyant in several areas. For example, “Serious questions arise as to whether a single commercial airframe manufacturer is financially able to undertake, alone, the development of the next new commercial aircraft.” NASA accurately predicted that such programs would require consortiums, including international ones, and that “new commercial aircraft ventures will probably also require substantial government funding support to offset the risks…”

In Europe, the British/French Concorde program was the first major inter-governmental cooperative effort, and the Aero Outlook also cited the then-new Airbus consortium and its developmental A300 “subsonic long-haul transport.” In the U.S., consolidation took the form of major airline manufacturers slowly either selling out (McDonnell Douglas to Boeing in 1996) or refocusing on military programs, as Lockheed did when it abandoned its L-1011 in 1984, later merging with Martin Marietta to form Lockheed Martin. In 2018, it’s hard to remember a world with more than two major players in the airline airframe business.

The Aero Outlook also guessed correctly that efficiency and cleanliness would become the mantra of aircraft development. “The quest for greater fuel efficiency and reduced operating costs of civil airliners will depend for the most part on technical advances in engines, lightweight composite materials, and improved aerodynamics.”

NASA’s crystal ball clouded, however, when it came to projecting how airport infrastructure would develop. The Aero Outlook surmised that, by 1995, “With the advent of very quiet VTOL aircraft that can operate from small landing sites, perhaps 10 acres in area or four city blocks, the potential exists for using small city airports as the nuclei for redevelopment and for creating centers of commerce that would revitalize our cities.”

In 2018, it’s tough to imagine a politician trying to sell the idea of a 10-acre vertiport in the middle of a city as a nucleus for urban redevelopment.

The Aero Outlook also fogged up regarding supersonic flight. “The year 1995 is the target date for a second-generation, commercial supersonic transport.” It would be much larger than Concorde, NASA wrote, fly up to 8,000 statute miles, and “incorporate significant advances in technology that would permit clean and efficient flight at cruise speeds up to 2,000 mph and quiet operation in terminal areas.”

Aerion is targeting some of those capabilities in its AS2 supersonic business jet, but with the demise of the Concorde, supersonic airliners not only haven’t progressed, they’ve literally become museum pieces. If there is to be a rebirth of supersonic airliners, perhaps business aviation is leading the way.

Conspicuous by its absence in NASA’s report is any mention of avionics development. If you had shown one of today’s instrument panels to any 1977 pilot (including me), they would have thought it was fanciful science fiction.    

To be fair, the first GPS satellite didn’t launch until a dozen years after the report’s publication. And who could have predicted the information technology explosion that made today’s miracle avionics possible? While composites, aerodynamics, and engines have all advanced remarkably, it’s been their electronic brains that have done the most to make today’s birds not only smarter and more efficient, but safer. And if current aero-seers are correct, it won’t be long before they really do “fly themselves.”