It’s National Aviation Day! Not just another weird holiday, but a day that us humans can take pride in the progress we have made in aerial maneuverability since we first tried flapping our arms and jumping off cliffs. Today, we celebrate the success of that quest with some of the greatest devices, real and unreal, in aviation.
The Wright Flyer
Hang gliding looks ridiculously insane. Like Mog above, anyone badass enough to jump off of perfectly stable ground in order to float around in the sky with nothing more than an over-sized kite keeping you from falling to your death deserves all the respect and admiration that we can throw at them.
What could be even more badass? Attaching an engine to that kite because float around is boring. We need some speed! We need to float around faster than anyone else up here!
That’s what Orville and Wilbur Wright did back in 1903 when they created The Flyer. They designed a bigger and better kite, attached a 4-cylinder engine to it, and proceeded to launch themselves off a sand dune. The first test flight was piloted by Wilbur after winning a coin flip. Yes, he won the coin flip for the chance to risk life and limb jumping off a sand dune while encased in this mechanical monstrosity. He ended up crashing. What did the Wright brothers do? They did it again. AND AGAIN. AND AGAIN! They continued doing it until they managed to fly 852 feet in 59 seconds.
It should be noted that the Wright Flyer didn’t have wheels, so all of their landings were actually intentional crashes with unintentional injuries.
What’s crazier than climbing into a heap of sticks with wings and and an engine attached to it in order to fly like the Wright brothers? How’s about deciding, “I don’t need a bloody engine. MY BODY IS AN ENGINE!” That’s what amateur cyclist Bryan Allen did when he boarded the Gossamer Albatross, which replaced a gas engine with bicycle pedals, in order to fly across the English Channel in 1979.
For just under 3 hours, Allen pedaled to keep from drowning in order to fly a little over 22 miles and make the Gossamer Albatross the first human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel.
My cardio is decent, but I think the stress of pedaling for my life over a large, deep body of water would cause a disastrous cramp.
Okay, so Pegasus isn’t really an aircraft, and isn’t really…well, real, but this flying horse and his mythical pilot, Perseus, deserve respect in the annals of aviation. Why? Because Pegasus integrated the manliness of riding a wild horse with the dream of flying across the sky like the sun god, Apollo (not to be confused with Apollo Creed, the god of boxing).
While original Greek mythology has Perseus borrowing Hermes’ winged shoes in order to fly to Ethiopia to slay the sea monster Cetus in order to get the girl (Andromeda), later revisions replaced the shoes with Pegasus. Why? Because riding a winged stallion into battle against a giant abomination is much sexier than flying around in winged sandals.
If you grew up in the ’80s, chances are you had a poster of the SR-71 “Blackbird” on your wall as a kid. You may not have known much about what the plane did, but that didn’t matter. It was a giant, black plane with wing turbines that looked like missile launchers and could be mistaken as the ancestor of a TIE Fighter. That was enough for me to put up a poster, build a model, wear a T-shirt, and have a comforter on my bed with this giant plane emblazoned on it. All of this, and I didn’t even have a family member in the Air Force.
What I did know was that:
- it was a spy plane
- it was the prettiest military equipment in existence
- it looked like something that could blow a hole through the Earth
What I didn’t know was that:
- the only weaponry it sported were jamming devices to keep it off of enemy radar
- SR-71 was not the name of a band, but the acronym for Strategic Reconnaissance
- Blackbird was a nickname, due to it looking nothing like a blackbird. Maybe a giant, black, fire-breathing gryphon
Unfortunately, beauty is only skin deep, especially in the military. The planes was decommissioned in 1998 and sent to museums in order to be featured in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen because its strength at outrunning rockets while providing surveillance was phased out now that we have satellites that can see how many grains of sugar I put in my coffee. Allegedly.
What’s better than a fighter jet careening across the sky loaded down with enough firepower to obliterate a small town? How about a fighter jet that can vertically land in what used to be the town square to survey the wreckage? That is what a Harrier Jump Jet is capable of.
Developed in Britain, the Harrier looks like the hybrid of an eagle and a cobra, thanks to its downward angled wings and a turbine intake on either side of the cockpit area. It’s one of the prettiest pieces of military aircraft in service.
It’s also one of the most misrepresented. Everyone learned about Harriers when Arnold Schwarzenegger hopped into one in the movie True Lies and proceeded to lift off vertically from a bridge and proceed to blow the crap out of a group of terrorists hiding out in a Miami skyscraper. Unfortunately, Harriers rarely attempt a full vertical lift-off loaded down with a payload due to the amount of gas it takes to get this monster up in the air. Hollywood, you’ve failed us again.
Earth-based aviation is all well and good, but all good things must evolve. What better way to evolve our attempts at flight than to fly straight into space?
That’s what Space Shuttles used to do, and they did it relatively well with 133 successful launches and re-entries.
In order to attempt this feat, the large Space Shuttle was attached to an even larger rocket filled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen. That monster had two, smaller rocket boosters to give the operation a bit more pep, because you can’t have too much pep when attempting to push over 172,000 pounds through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Unfortunately, these endeavors had an estimated price-tag of $1.5 billion, and the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011.
Gulfstream V (G5)
So you think you’re a baller, driving around in your $3.9 million Lamborghini Veneno? Playa, you’re out of your league. You don’t have scratch unless you have your own Gulfstream V private jet.
This is the plane that got Tom Cruise dancing in Tropic Thunder and, at an estimated $45-70 million, it’s the perfect way to say, “I’m so awesome, I don’t even have wheels. I have mother-f%^in’ wings!” Finally, aviation has joined the ranks of insane luxury.
Of course, there are bigger ballers than G5 owners. Donald Trump has his own Boeing jumbo jet, allegedly trimmed with gold and diamonds and soaking in the blood of virgin Siberian tiger cubs, and actor John Travolta actually flies his own Boeing.
I know, the Millennium Falcon is not a historical landmark in modern aviation, but I wouldn’t be doing Aviation Day any justice if I didn’t write about a fictional piece of aircraft that could be in our future. I didn’t choose the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 because I’m a Star Wars fan, and I didn’t choose the Battlestar Galactica because, really, that pile of space junk just isn’t very iconic.
The Millennium Falcon is as ugly as the worst of fictional spaceships. It’s as if George Lucas decided to merge a flying saucer with a Winnebago, complete with a satellite dish that gets horrible TV reception, and call it a starship (apparently, Mel Brooks agrees with me). When people dream about flying through space at the speed of light, they probably don’t envision the Millennium Falcon.
At the same time, this is what you can expect from the next evolution of aviation: a hulking monstrosity that just gets the job done. That’s what the Millenium Falcon is. As the great Han Solo once said, “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”
Patrick Emmel once crashed 20 times in a row trying to land a plane in the Nintendo game Top Gun. Suffice to say, he did not try to get his pilot’s license. You can see more of his work at The Inept Owl, or heckle him on Twitter @Patrick_AE.