Article Published: Sunday, December 21, 2003
Not everything about it is good
By Ed Quillen
Last Wednesday, America celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first powered, sustained and controlled flight of a manned heavier-than-air machine.
All those qualifiers are important, since lighter-than-air balloons had been carrying people since 1783, when Jean Franois-Pilātre and Franois Laurent embarked on the first free flight (previous manned balloons had been tethered) for 23 minutes over the French countryside.
Their invention, the hot-air balloon, is still in use. Others applied the principle to develop buoyant aircraft that could be steered, like blimps.
Many inventors of the 18th and 19th centuries turned their attention to kites, which had been around for centuries. They tried to extend the principle to gliders that could carry a pilot, and eventually to a powered aircraft.
But the power was the major problem. All they had was the steam engine, which required heavy stuff like coal, water, boilers, condensers and the like. The resulting mass didn't matter all that much on the ground or in a ship, but its low power-to-weight ratio made flight nearly impossible, though some people tried.
Among them was Aleksandr Mozhaysky, a Russian who built a steam-powered monoplane which he launched down a ski jump in 1884. He stayed aloft for a few seconds, and during the Cold War, the Soviet Union cited this to claim that a Russian had invented modern flight.
There were French, English and Austrian inventors who also built machines that got off the ground for a few moments, but the real thing had to wait for a lighter power plant - one that didn't need a heavy external boiler. That arrived with the internal-combustion engine which, by 1900, was coming into use for horseless carriages.
All the pieces were available a century ago, but somebody had to figure out how to assemble them.
Wilbur and Orville Wright were not semi-literate rustics. They were proof of Thomas Edison's observation that "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."
They methodically designed and tested wings, propellers and engines. Their experience designing and building bicycles was highly relevant: Balance was vital on both, as was strong but light construction.
So it was that on 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 17, 1903, Orville Wright flew for 12 seconds along sandy dunes in Kitty Hawk, N.C. That's certainly an important event worthy of commemoration, but is it one worth celebrating?
Conservatives might note that the airplane led to perhaps the largest "takings" of private property in American history. Most states had property laws based on English Common Law, which had the doctrine of "To whomsoever the soil belongs, he owns also to the sky and to the depths."
Such traditional property rights would obviously stand in the way of any aviation industry. So, in 1926, Congress passed the Air Commerce Act, which declared that the "navigable air space" (everything above "the minimum safe altitudes of flight," typically 500 to 1,000 feet) of the nation was a public right-of-way, open to all citizens.
Thus, millions of Americans lost property rights without compensation, in total violation of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution (an action upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1946).
Further, the airline industry was a result of immense federal subsidies, starting with the Air Mail Act of 1925. By 1929, the direct subsidy was $6 million, and that didn't count the construction of beacons, radio stations, emergency landing fields and the like.
The airline industry is not a result of private enterprise, and that continues to this day, with the $10 billion bailout after Sept. 11, 2001.
In other portions of the political spectrum, pacifists should find little reason to celebrate. Almost from the beginning, the airplane was developed for warfare. The Wright brothers wanted their first customer to be the U.S. War Department, but the Army initially refused to believe that the Wrights actually had a working airplane. By 1909, however, the Wrights were building military craft.
And, as we learned on a late-summer day in 2001, even civilian airliners can be turned into weapons of mass destruction.
The victims don't stop there. Modern jets don't just carry passengers and cargo; they carry diseases, too. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin concluded that the West Nile virus, "like SARS, is a disease of the jet-plane era. Just as SARS jumped the Pacific Ocean from China to Canada, West Nile apparently moved from Israel - site of an identical viral strain - to the United States via jet plane." Other researchers say malaria is now being spread by mosquitoes that get aboard airplanes.
There are good reasons to worry about how jet exhaust in the stratosphere might be contributing to global warming. The carbon dioxide from jet engines tends to stay up there, rather than settle to where the carbon can be absorbed by plants or the ocean. A researcher at the University of Michigan concluded that "A greenhouse gas at the stratospheric level is much more effective than one at a much lower altitude at blocking radiant energy from escaping the earth; it may explain the perplexing phenomenon of substantially higher rates of increase in the atmospheric and oceanic temperatures."
That same researcher also looked at fuel economy, no small consideration during these days of war in oil-producing regions. Fill a Boeing 747-200 to 80 percent of capacity with passengers, and do the same thing to a typical bus. The bus is eight times more efficient than the jet. That is, a gallon of bus fuel produces eight passenger-miles for every passenger-mile produced by a gallon of jet fuel.
Then there's the general assault on human comfort and dignity at the airport: long lines, invasive inspections, and pervasive crowding, all too familiar to need description here.
And does all this produce a better transportation system? For many Americans, the answer is no. The major airlines don't serve rural areas with anything but overhead noise, and the smaller carriers demand subsidies above and beyond what the airlines already get.
To put this another way, someone living in my house in Salida 75 years ago could have walked to the Denver & Rio Grande Western depot, six blocks away, and purchased a ticket to any destination between San Francisco and New York City. Today, it's a two-hour drive over twisting mountain roads before you can get into line at an airport with scheduled service. That's better?
Dec. 17, 1903, was indeed a day that changed the world. But during the centennial hoopla, we should keep in mind that not all these changes were improvements