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The Future of Flying On Assignment

The Future of Flying On Assignment

The Future of Flying
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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By Michael KlesiusPhotographs by Joe McNally

The airplane has come a long way in its first hundred years. Fasten your seat belt for a high-tech ride into the next century of flight.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

We take off into the radiance of a midwinter sun. Maj. Mark "Jocko" Johnson, a Marine Corps test pilot, shoves the throttles forward. Engines roaring, the U.S. Navy's newest and most advanced tactical aircraft, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, leaps down the runway with head-snapping acceleration. From the backseat, where I can just see over Jocko's helmet, I watch the expanse of Naval Air Station China Lake in the California desert rush at us. Our mounting speed feels like a truckload of sand pouring onto me. In less than half a mile the airplane springs aloft. Minutes later Jocko banks northward into the brown, bush-dotted fissures of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and we begin a terrain-hugging, gut-clutching ride at 540 knots—the speed of an airliner at cruise altitude. But we're only 500 feet (200 meters) above the folded landscape. He finesses the airplane through sharp turns and dodges mountain outcrops with the twitch of a wrist. When ridges appear in our path, he climbs, twists the aircraft onto its back, and curls above them, then holds us inverted for a brief count as we nose into the next valley. I tilt my head back and peer out the top of the canopy at the stony earth hurtling past.

Moths awakening in my stomach, I decline his next suggestion, something called the squirrel cage. Instead, he takes us into a high-speed loop, topping out near 20,000 feet (6,000 meters). As we plunge into the dive, with the frosted Sierra to our west and the toasted desert straight down, my queasiness suddenly vanishes. In its place, pure exuberance! I'm lost in the tumbling alchemy of earth and sky, my soul awash in the freedom, the audacity, the miracle of flight.

When powered flight turns a hundred on December 17, it's worth noting what an adventure flying still is in a world where commercial air travel has become routine, uncomfortable, sometimes torturous. On our way back to base I thank Jocko for taking me up. "I should be thanking you," he replies. "I was scheduled to fly a desk all day." His passion for his calling salutes a century of aviators all the way back to the Wright brothers, while his airplane heralds the next century of aviation. The Super Hornet and a few other new fighter planes exhibit the stealthy angles and coatings that make it difficult for radar to detect them, among aviation's most cutting-edge advances in design.

In contrast to the rapid progress in the military, the commercial airline industry has fastened its seat belts for serious economic turbulence, as evidenced by a string of layoffs and bankruptcies.

Few landings have been harder or higher profile than that of the Concorde, which just retired from service. Grounded with it is the hope for mass supersonic travel anytime soon. Instead, the Europeans are trading speed for size as they build a new superjumbo jet, the 555-seat A380.

In the 1950s airplanes got fast; in the 1980s they got stealthy; today they're getting smart. Brilliant, in fact. From the private four-seater to the massive A380, the airplane is evolving most dramatically on the inside.

In the military, computer automation has resulted in a new generation of airplanes called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, that fly without any pilots at all.

In commercial aviation the growth of automation has resulted in computers that already fly the plane from just after takeoff to landing, turning pilots into flight-systems managers. UAVs now spark debate over whether cargo planes and even airliners of the future could fly pilotless.

"Airplanes are now built to carry a pilot and a dog in the cockpit," says Arlen Rens, a Lockheed Martin test pilot. "The pilot's job is to feed the dog, and the dog's job is to bite the pilot if he touches anything."

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Find out what "firsts" made aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart famous. View vintage photos of early aviation. And discover what flight predictions National Geographic published in its pages 50 years ago.

VIDEO Air Force historian Richard Hallion describes his top five choices for the 20th century's most significant airplanes.

AUDIO Hear the complete interview (recommended for low-speed connections).
RealPlayer  WinMedia

Wright Flyer
Build a 3-D virtual model of the Wright Flyer, part by part. Then watch it take off when you're done.

Take a 360° look at famous aircraft such as World War II's P-51 Mustang, the Boeing 707, Lockheed's SR-71 spy plane, and the supersonic F/A-22 Raptor. Then fly into the future with NASA's unmanned X-43.

What innovations
 you like to see 
in commercial air transportation?

Flashback to November 1947 when a hybrid automobile-plane, buzzed through the skies of San Diego.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
On December 17, 2003, the world celebrates the "centennial of flight."  This is a bit of a misnomer, as humans have been flying lighter-than-air vehicles since the first balloons of the late 1700s, and airplanes had been designed prior to 1903. The Wright brothers didn't simply claim the first airplane or the first flight. Orville Wright's estate attached a qualifying label to the display of their 1903 Flyer at the Smithsonian: "The original Wright brothers' aeroplane: the world's first power-driven, heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled, and sustained flight."
No matter how you define flight, Orville and Wilbur Wright are credited with having invented the first successful airplane. From a modern viewpoint their reputation is so strong that it's hard to believe that there were so many other experimenters close to being first in flight. The Wrights' success was not assured—even they had moments of doubt that piloted, powered, heavier-than-air flight would exist in their own lifetime.
Among the community of experimenters in aviation at the turn of the last century, one stood out from the crowd in terms of reputation and funding—Samuel Pierpont Langley, the third secretary of the Smithsonian. Although he failed at manned, powered flight, having someone of his stature involved in flight gave credibility to the whole field. Langley is still acknowledged as a significant aeronautical experimenter. The first aircraft carrier ever, an Air Force base, and a NASA research center were named after him, yet now he is a footnote in the history books, eclipsed by two bicycle makers from Ohio.
At first glance, it is almost inconceivable that the Wrights could succeed where Langley could not. In 1896 Langley made a successful 90-second, half-mile flight of a 13-foot (4-meter) model, unmanned, propelled by a one-horsepower steam engine. Langley's successful experiment caught the attention of powerful friends and acquaintances in Washington, including inventor Alexander Graham Bell (the second president of the National Geographic Society) and Theodore Roosevelt, at that time the assistant secretary of the Navy.
Spurred by the beginning of the Spanish and American War in 1898, the Navy endorsed further experimentation by Langley for military purposes, funding him with $50,000. Additional support came from the Smithsonian Institution and Alexander Graham Bell. On October 7, 1903, Langley launched his Great Aerodrome, this time piloted, from a houseboat on the Potomac River. The machine's weak structure could not support its own weight. Once free of the launch vessel the plane plunged straight into the river—a disaster. Charles Manly, the pilot, swam free of the wreckage.
Langley made one more attempt, this time on December 8, 1903.
 Again he launched the Great Aerodrome from the top of the houseboat on the Potomac. This time the powerful momentum of the launch caused the structurally unsound airframe to collapse upon itself. The whole plane stalled and crashed into the icy river, nearly killing Manly.
Nine days later, on December 17, Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully piloted their Flyer four times on the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and flew into the history books. Their only official government support had come from Richard Rathbun, the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian. In 1899 he received a letter from Wilbur Wright asking for background material on "proper construction of a flying machine" that would help the Wrights in their own engineering. Rathbun assembled a packet of materials and references that encouraged and informed the Wrights' progress at a crucial time in their development. Thus, after all, the Smithsonian had made a significant contribution to the development of flight—through the Wright brothers.
Competition with Langley's reputation didn't end after 1903, however.  After Langley's death in 1906, the Wrights were embroiled in a number of patent disputes, and eventually Langley's Great Aerodrome was patched up and tested again to prove that it would have been capable of flight, although Langley hadn't succeeded in flying it. This time, after significant modifications from the original model, the Aerodrome flew. The Smithsonian's Annual Report of 1915 stated, "The tests thus far made have shown that former Secretary Langley had succeeded in building the first aeroplane capable of sustained free flight with a man." 
In return for being officially disregarded as the inventors of the first successful airplane, Orville Wright took the wily step of sending the original 1903 Wright Flyer to the Science Museum in London in 1928 to exhibit there in perpetuity. It was not until the Smithsonian published a retraction in 1942 that Orville changed his will and bequeathed the Flyer to the Smithsonian for display in the "National Capital only."  The first successful airplane, the Wright Flyer of 1903, finally graced the North Hall of the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building in 1948, 45 years to the day after its historic flight at Kitty Hawk.
—Elizabeth Snodgrass

Did You Know?

Related Links
U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
Explore extensive links to websites about the history of aviation, the Wright brothers, events celebrating the centennial, games, still photographs and early movies, a searchable time line of flight, aviation museums, information for educators, and much more.  "Links of the Day" features highlighted essays, facts, and a "cool link."

Federal Aviation Administration
Consult this government website to get the latest information on aviation safety measures, security tips, airline on-time statistics, weather, and more.

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center
Under the section Flight Research Milestones, travel decade by decade through the history of cutting-edge aviation at NASA's premier flight research center. Its claim: "The newest, the fastest, the highest—all have made their debut in the vast, clear desert skies over Dryden."

Search through the exhibits of the online Aircraft Museum, where clicking on the name of any aircraft brings up a fact sheet with a basic description as well as detailed specifications. The more technically minded will enjoy the Aerospace Design and Ask A Rocket Scientist sections. Aerospaceweb is put together by a team of engineers from the aviation and aerospace industries.

Beginner's Guide to Aerodynamics
Ever wonder how a jet engine works or what forces influence a plane's movement through the air? This web-based textbook explains the basics of aerodynamics and includes animated images showing jet engines in action.
Code One Magazine, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company
Flip through the e-pages of Lockheed's well-illustrated corporate magazine to learn more about their flagship military planes: the F/A-22, the F-16, and the JSF. Lockheed goes beyond these, too, to focus on aviation history, weapons, naval air information, and other industry-related topics.
Aerospace Technology: Website for the Aerospace Industry
While the main website is for professionals, enthusiasts will enjoy the Projects section's links to readable descriptions of aircraft from all segments of the industry. Covered are: business jets, helicopters, regional jets, turboprop aircraft, freighters, long-haul passenger jets, and space craft.
Air Force Technology: Website for Defense Industries—Air Force
Constructed in the same format as the previous site, links to military aircraft are grouped under headers: attack helicopters, long-range bombers, support helicopters, training aircraft, fighters ground attack, naval helicopters, surveillance and patrol aircraft, and transporters and tankers.
SR-71 Blackbird
Blackbirds inspire deep love and loyalty in those who flew and serviced them from their introduction in the 1960s until their final retirement in the 1990s. This website, put together by a former Air Force master seargeant, is a love letter to these planes. Learn of the speed records set, download videos, trace a time line of lost Blackbirds, read about the plane's early history, and peruse a biography of Lockheed Skunk Works originator Kelly Johnson.
Federation of American Scientists Intelligence Resource Program
Explore this exhaustive site covering unmanned aerial vehicles with descriptions of a number of prominent Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The Sources and Resources section has links to a wide variety of excellent background materials, including many government articles and briefings.
Boeing Phantom Works
Learn about many of Boeing's newest technological developments from the website of Boeing's Research & Development department. News releases and news articles highlight some of the newest Boeing aircraft.
Aviation Week & Space Technology
If you are interested in aerospace, you'll enjoy this excellent weekly publication that includes sections on world news and air transport in every issue, and topical articles on everything from space technology, military aviation, and unmanned aerial vehicles to commercial and general aviation. While subscribers to the magazine have free access to the website, others may view only limited articles.

Joe McNally Photography
Find out more about McNally on his website and view online galleries of his work.


Anderson, John D., Jr.  The Airplane: A History of its Technology.  American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics, 2002.
Brzezinski, Matthew. "The Unmanned Army," The New York Times Magazine (April 20, 2003), 38-41, 80.
Fallows, James. Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Travel. Public Affairs, 2002. 
Grant, R. G. Flight: 100 Years of Aviation. Dorling Kindersley, 2002.
Hehs, Eric.  "Flight Testing the Raptor," Code One (second quarter 2003), 3-9.
Nordwall, Bruce D. "Novel Anti-G Suit Protects With Liquid," Aviation Week & Space Technology (August 6, 2001), 60-61.
Norris, Guy. "Pelican Crossing," Flight International (July 1, 2003).
Rich, Ben, and Leo Janos. Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed.  Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
Simmons, Peter. "Super Hercules 101," Code One (second quarter 2003), 11-15.
Vangelova, Luba. "Outback Scramjet," Air&Space Smithsonian (October/November 2002), 75-81.
Wayne, Leslie. "A final push for the bedeviled, beloved Osprey," New York Times, July 6, 2003.
Yin, Sandra. "Bruce Holmes: A NASA visionary discusses plans to revolutionize air travel in America," American Demographics (March 2003).


NGS Resources
Jakab, Peter L. Airborne: A Photobiography of Wilbur and Orville Wright. National Geographic Books, 2003.
Phelan, Glen. "First Flight," National Geographic Explorer! (April/March 2003), 4-9.
Morell, Virginia. "Amelia Earhart," National Geographic (January 1998), 112-35.
Crippen, Robert L., and John W. Young. "Columbia's Astronauts' Own Story: Our Phenomenal First Flight," National Geographic (October 1981), 478-503.
Land, Emory S. "Aviation Looks Ahead on Its 50th Birthday: Now a Billion-dollar Business, Airlines Plan Jet Transports, Fast Freighters, and Downtown Helicopter Ports," National Geographic (December 1953), 721-39.
"Fifty Years of Flight," National Geographic (December 1953), 740-56.

Keyhoe, Donald E. "Seeing America With Lindbergh: The Record of a Tour of More Than 20,000 Miles by Airplane Through Forty-eight States on Schedule Time," National Geographic (January 1928), 1-46.

Coolidge, Calvin. "President Coolidge Bestows Lindbergh Award: The National Geographic Society's Hubbard Medal Is Presented to Aviator Before the Most Notable Gathering in the History of Washington," National Geographic (January 1928), 132-40.
Grosvenor, Gilbert Hovey. "Air Conquest: From the Early Days of Giant Kites and Birdlike Gliders, the National Geographic Society Has Aided and Encouraged the Growth of Aviation," National Geographic (August 1927), 233-42.


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