The history of light plane aviation might seem like a steady arc from Kitty Hawk to Wichita (and beyond), but nothing could be further from the truth. Even at the beginning, the creation of what we now think of as the light aviation segment was hardly a given, and even once it had achieved some kind of nascent status, it faced a series of obstacles that threatened its continued growth toward an activity that offers the average person remarkable opportunities and powers.
In fact, along the way, the future of light aviation was threatened by a number of events, both beyond our control and entirely of our own making, the outcomes of which were anything but a given, the results of which could just as easily have been an aviation world in which personal flying was far more restricted than it is today or, perhaps, absent altogether.
Striking in their scope and variety, these challenges started pretty much from first flight and have persisted throughout the history of light general aviation, even to this day. Here are some of the big hurdles we faced in getting to where we are today and that we today face in forging a future for this amazing pathway to the skies.
We Got This. (They Didn’t, Really.)
It’s important to remember, before and for a time after the Wrights launched down their sandy path, that how people perceived flying and what its future might be were far different from how we understand it today. There were no Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), no FAA to guide development. No concept of shared airspace. Even those in the midst of the discovery did not yet comprehend the challenges of flight that every private pilot applicant today knows by rote and, soon thereafter, through experience. Remember, too, that aviation had been an experimental field for well more than a century at the time of Wrights.
That was perhaps the biggest takeaway. The pioneers of flight were beginning to understand how difficult it was to get a powered airplane even briefly into the sky and how life-threatening a proposition that was. A big part of the problem was how little even the flighterati understood the nature of aerodynamics and the ways in which flight controls might be designed and manufactured to address those physical realities. Volumes could be written about the struggles these designers had in even wrapping their heads around something that even moderately knowledgeable aviation types today see as the simple concept of aerodynamic stability.
Those early aircraft were outrageously difficult to fly. How so? Think of flying a modern plane loaded far beyond the aft CG with the wings loosely bolted on and at 5% power. Then remember that the structures of those fledgling craft posed more hazard to the pilot in a crash than they did protection. One model of an early Wright Flyer barely did what its name promised. The Wrights built eight Model C aircraft for the military, six of which crashed with fatal results. It would take about two decades for aircraft designers even to begin to build aircraft that were flyable by a less than highly skilled pilot with a bit of luck that day. It would take even longer to where flyable aircraft could be made sufficiently durable, reliable and affordable that they would resemble products an average person might buy and operate.
So the sense that we have, that the creation of a personal flying segment was a given, ignores the fact that creating aircraft good enough to support such a structure was a staggeringly difficult endeavor, one whose outcome was, for decades, in doubt.