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By George Stuteville

"Look at me! I can fly!"

How often is this heard on playgrounds as children run, top-speed, their arms stretched outward as they enact humankind's sweetest aspiration: to fly.

For centuries humans in flight was the stuff of dreams and the pursuit of dreamers—an elusive and tantalizing quest for people, yet a commonplace ability for animals as small as a fruit fly.

Though humans have now flown in airplanes for a century, in terms of the advancement and possibilities of aviation, we are still but children.

So says Richard P. Hallion, the former historian of the United States Air Force at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.

Hallion, who directed the worldwide Air Force historical and museum programs until August 2002, said that his interpretation of the past achievements in aerospace makes him believe that within the next century, humans will fly at the boundaries of space—20 miles (30 kilometers) high and at speeds that exceed 6,000 mph (10,000 kph), a mile every two seconds.

But that future will be carried on the wings of the aircraft that advanced aviation higher, farther, and faster than the those first infant flights of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

In an interview with National Geographic, Hallion was asked to list what he regarded as five of the most important airplanes in the previous century. His selections can be further explored by clicking on the images at left.

He said his choices were based on airplanes, such as the Deperdussin Monocoque or the Gloster E.28/39, that set new standards for aerodynamic design and power. The French Deperdussin of 1912 became the model for high-speed airplane design, while the Gloster was a joint British and American high-performance jet that enabled English fliers to combat the buzz-bomb missles fired from Nazi Germany.

He also selected two American military planes—the SR-71  Blackbird and the F/A-22 Raptor—as examples of the fusion of superior aviation electronics (avionics) with jet propulsion systems that easily exceed the speed of sound at altitudes where the air is the thinnest.

In terms of making flight a commonplace activity, Hallion chose the Boeing 707 as the plane that set the standard for safe, economical jet transport.

"We can see that these aircraft blended qualities that were important and significant," Hallion said.

Currently, however, Hallion said that the future of aviation is at a point where designs may not be so radical in appearance, but represent technological leaps buried inside the avionics. The performance capacities of new aircraft will enable planes to operate with greater efficiencies and increasing safety.

But he also sounds a warning: "We [as a society] have had a steady decline in investment in all aeronautical research and development across all government and industry since 1987. It has nearly been in free fall. If we are to retain our position that we enjoyed in the last century, then we have to get moving now to do it."

"Critics say there is no market for this, that there is no way we can justify the investment that does this. But if the Wright brothers had walked into President Taft's office after inventing the airplane and given him a vision of aviation in which they said that by the turn of the next century you would have 660 million people flying across the United States in a single year by air transport, and that all this would take would be the development of thousands of different occupations, the moving of billions of cubic yards of earth for construction, and the development of thousands of new technologies, he would have thrown them out of the office."

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

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