Spotters Remind Us How Far Aviation Has Come in 120 Years

For most people, the only time we think about the wonders of aviation is when we’re strapped into our seats.

Spotters Remind Us How Far Aviation Has Come in 120 Years
Plane spotters watch a passenger airplane. (Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

If you stand on a small lane at the west end of Taipei’s Songshan airport at just the right moment, you can feel the hot air of a jet engine as it begins its takeoff run. On any given weekend, before the pandemic, dozens of people could be found milling about waiting for the next brief thrill as landing aircraft roared just above their heads and departures rustled the wind in their hair. 

For most people, the only time we think about the wonders of aviation is when we’re strapped into our seats. But spotters, the uber-enthusiasts who camp out at airfields to watch and document aircraft at work, have continued to maintain humankind’s sense of awe at a magical ability we discovered only 120 years ago. 

Spotters Remind Us How Far Aviation Has Come in 120 Years

In mid-February, as storm Eunice battered Europe, a livestream of the world’s biggest aircraft bounce and wobble their way to London’s Heathrow airport attracted almost 8 million views. Big Jet TV, a Youtube channel founded by spotter Jerry Dyer, kept enthusiasts and casual viewers enthralled for hours as plane after plane descended sideways through the overcast and blustery skies in an attempt to bring their cargo safely to the ground. Strong winds spurred some to take a second, or third, attempt. Some diverted to other airports. But they all made it.

Those aircraft still operate under principles that German pioneer Otto Lilienthal and his contemporaries experimented with in the late 19th century. Rather than lighter-than-air ships, such as blimps and hot-air balloons, those early engineers found that by shaping a flat surface in just the right way, you can form differential air pressure below and 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 Dec. 17 1903, you can see that the fundamentals of aviation have barely changed. The main areas of advancement have been in propulsion, structural engineering and navigation systems, rather than the underlying physics of flight. The world, however, is vastly different because of it. 

Spotters Remind Us How Far Aviation Has Come in 120 Years

Among the Wright Brothers’ early backers was the British War Office — the U.S. government initially rebuffed them — so when the Great War broke out in 1914, the use of aircraft irrevocably reshaped combat. As the fighting ended in 1918, Orville Wright was quoted as telling a friend, “The Aeroplane has made war so terrible that I do not believe any country will again care to start a war.” 

He was tragically wrong, with aviation becoming a key component of military conflict over the past century. The world’s most deadly weapon was ferried to its target over Hiroshima by a U.S. aircraft in 1945, while aerial assaults have evolved to be conducted by uncrewed drones in all corners of the world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this month has seen battles between forces play out at sea, ground and air to devastating effect. In addition to thousands of lives lost, the only model of the world’s largest aircraft — Ukraine’s Antonov AN-225 — was wrecked by bombing.

Spotters Remind Us How Far Aviation Has Come in 120 Years

Despite all the death and destruction enable by aircraft, it can be argued that more good than harm has come of their invention. Aviation opened up the movement of people and goods, while advancing cooperation among nations. Instead of sailing past the Statue of Liberty, today’s immigrants fly in to New York’s JFK airport. Rather than a weeklong voyage on the high seas, travelers can now have breakfast in London then dinner in New York.

Flying is much safer than sea travel, too. More souls were lost on the Titanic than in aviation accidents over the past five years, and the maritime industry records more than 1,500 accidents per year compared to around 85 annually among commercial aircraft operators. Although ships shuttle far fewer people around the world annually, over 1,000 people died or were lost in maritime incidents in the five years through 2019, compared to 1,459 for aviation

“If you can drive a car, you can fly a plane,” is the common mantra for flight schools around the world. And they’re right. Flying an aircraft is easy. Landing one is hard. The missed approaches on that wintry day in London are evidence that even the best pilots can struggle. They’re also proof of the limits of technology. Today’s two-person flight deck is seen as confirmation that more sophisticated systems are justified in current aircraft. The net benefits — including efficiency and flight safety — make it hard to put forward the opposing argument.

Yet it’s worth noting that in the early days aircraft had just one pilot. The Wright Brothers flew together only once, and many early pioneers including Amelia Earhart , the first female to cross the Atlantic Ocean alone, flew solo. Even modern small and medium planes often have just a single person at the controls. More people were added to the cockpit of airliners in the mid 20th century because increasingly complicated electronics kept finding their way on board — from navigation aids to radio communications equipment. A minimum of two are need these days simply to handle the computers and checklists. 

Spotters Remind Us How Far Aviation Has Come in 120 Years

Advancements in that technology may be reaching their limit, with modern electronics starting to become too much for even an experienced pilot to handle when they malfunction. Captain Kevin Sullivan barely managed to wrest back control of Qantas Airways Ltd. flight 72 when his Airbus SE A330 suddenly pitched toward the earth, twice, on its way from Singapore to Perth in October 2008. In “No Man’s Land: The Untold Story of Automation on QF72,” the former U.S. Navy pilot later wrote he felt like he’s “in a knife fight with this aeroplane, and it has cut me twice.” 

A decade later, system malfunctions ended in greater tragedy. Having decided to recycle the design of an existing aircraft, rather than start from scratch, Boeing Co. came out with the 737 Max. The placement of larger, more fuel-efficient engines meant the company had to tinker with some of the fundamental physics that govern balance and lift in an aircraft, and opted to adjust for these changes with software that runs the flight controls. Pilots were unaware, resulting in two separate crashes and the loss of more than 340 lives.

Boeing has since been chastened, and the world has learned from those disasters, putting us back on a path to even safer flying just as the global pandemic recedes. In coming years, even more aircraft with their sophisticated control systems will be taking to the skies and reconnecting the world. Aviation enthusiasts, affectionally called AvGeeks, will be documenting their journeys and reminding us of all that’s been accomplished. 

But you don’t have to be able to distinguish a Boeing from an Airbus, or a wingtip from a winglet, to appreciate aviation. You need only marvel that we can fly.

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

  • Electric Flying Cars Are Just Dirty Helicopters: David Fickling
  • One Pilot in the Cockpit Is a Terrible Idea: Fickling and Culpan 
  • Aircraft Retirement Party Has Been Postponed: Brooke Sutherland

Little progress has been made since Earhart paved the way, with women comprising just 5.8% of the world's airline pilots.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

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