Plane spotters remind us of how far aviation has come in 120 years
By Tim Culpan,
If you stand on a small lane at the western end of Taipei’s Songshan Airport at the right time, you can smell the hot air of a jet engine as it begins its take-off run. Every weekend before the pandemic, dozens of people waited for the next brief thrill as landing planes roared just overhead and departures rustled the wind through their hair.
For most people, the only time we think about the wonders of aviation is when we’re strapped into our seats. But observers, the super-enthusiasts who camp out on airfields to watch and document planes at work, have continued to fuel humanity’s sense of awe at a magical ability we discovered only 120 years ago. .
In mid-February, as Storm Eunice hit Europe, a live stream of the world’s largest plane bouncing and wobbling toward London’s Heathrow airport drew nearly 8 million views. Big Jet TV, a Youtube channel founded by spotter Jerry Dyer, captivated enthusiasts and casual viewers for hours as plane after plane descended sideways through the overcast, windy skies in an attempt to get their cargo safely to the ground. Strong winds prompted some to attempt a second or third attempt. Some were diverted to other airports. But they all succeeded.
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These aircraft still operate on the principles that German pioneer Otto Lilienthal and his contemporaries experimented with in the late 19th century. Rather than lighter-than-air vessels, such as airships and hot air balloons, these early engineers discovered that by shaping a flat surface in the right way, you can form differential air pressure below and above it. above, which creates lift.
If you compare a modern Boeing or Airbus to the very machine flown – for just 12 seconds – by Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, you can see that the fundamentals of aviation have barely changed. The main areas of advancement have been propulsion, structural engineering, and navigation systems, rather than the underlying physics of flight. The world, however, is very different because of it.
Among the Wright brothers’ early funders was the British War Office – the US government initially rebuffed them – so when the Great War broke out in 1914, the use of aircraft irrevocably reshaped combat. When the fighting ended in 1918, Orville Wright was quoted as saying to a friend, “Aircraft made the war so terrible that I don’t believe any country wants to start a war again.”
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He was tragically wrong, as aviation has become a key part of military conflict over the past century. The world’s deadliest weapon was flown to its target over Hiroshima by American aircraft in 1945, while aerial assaults evolved to be carried out by unmanned drones around the world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this month saw battles between forces unfold at sea, on the ground and in the air to devastating effect. In addition to the thousands of lives lost, the only model of the largest aircraft in the world – the Ukrainian Antonov AN-225 – was destroyed by the bombardments.
Despite all the death and destruction allowed by airplanes, it’s safe to say that their invention did more good than harm. Aviation has opened up the movement of people and goods, while advancing cooperation between nations. Instead of walking past the Statue of Liberty, today’s immigrants land at JFK airport in New York. Rather than a week-long voyage on the high seas, travelers can now have breakfast in London and then dinner in New York.
Flying is also much safer than sea travel. More souls have been lost on the Titanic than in aviation accidents in the past five years, and the maritime industry records more than 1,500 accidents a year. compared to approximately 85 per year among commercial aircraft operators. Although ships carry far fewer people around the world each year, more than 1,000 people died or were lost in maritime incidents in the five years to 2019, compared to 1,459 for aviation.
“If you can drive a car, you can fly a plane,” is the common mantra of flight schools around the world. And they are right. Flying an airplane is easy. Landing one is difficult. Missed approaches on this wintry day in London are proof that even the best pilots can struggle. They are also proof of the limits of technology. Today’s two-person cockpit is seen as confirmation that more sophisticated systems are warranted in today’s aircraft. The net benefits – including efficiency and flight safety – make the opposite argument difficult.
Still, it should be noted that at first the planes had only one pilot. The Wright brothers flew together only once, and many early pioneers, including Amelia Earhart, the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean alone, flew solo. Even modern small and medium aircraft often have only one person at the controls. More and more people were added to the cockpits of airliners in the mid-20th century as increasingly complicated electronics continued to find their way onboard – from navigational aids to radio communication equipment. A minimum of two is needed these days just to manage computers and checklists.
Advances in this technology can reach their limits, with modern electronics beginning to become too much for even an experienced pilot to handle should they malfunction. Captain Kevin Sullivan barely managed to regain control of Qantas Airways Ltd Flight 72. when his Airbus SE A330 suddenly tipped to earth, twice, en route from Singapore to Perth in October 2008. In “No Man’s Land: The Untold Story of Automation on QF72”, the former US Navy pilot later wrote that he felt like he was “in a knife fight with that plane, and it cut me twice.”
A decade later, the malfunctions of the system have resulted in greater tragedy. Having decided to recycle the design of an existing aircraft, rather than start from scratch, Boeing Co. released the 737 Max. The placement of larger, more fuel-efficient engines meant the company had to tinker with some of the fundamental physics that governs an aircraft’s balance and lift, and chose to accommodate those changes with software that execute flight commands. The pilots were unaware, which resulted in two separate crashes and the loss of over 340 lives.
Boeing has since been reprimanded, and the world has learned from those disasters, putting us back on the path to even safer flight just as the global pandemic recedes. In the years to come, even more aircraft with their sophisticated control systems will take to the skies and reconnect the world. Aviation enthusiasts, affectionately known as AvGeeks, will document their journeys and remind us of all that has been achieved.
But you don’t have to be able to tell a Boeing from an Airbus, or a wingtip from a winglet, to appreciate aviation. You only have to wonder that we can fly.
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