Less than one hundred years ago, Lord Kelvin, the most prominent scientist of his generation, remarked that he had not “the smallest molecule of faith’ in any form of flight other than ballooning. Within a decade of his damningly pessimistic statement, the Wright brothers were routinely puttering through the skies above Huffman Prairie, pirouetting about in their frail pusher biplanes. They were there because, unlike Kelvin, they saw opportunity, not difficulty, challenge, not impossibility. And they had met that challenge, seized that opportunity, by taking the work of their minds, transforming it by their hands, making a series of gliders and, then, finally, an actual airplane that they flew. Flight testing was the key to their success.
The history of flight testing encompasses the essential history of aviation itself. For as long as humanity has aspired to fly, men and women of courage have moved resolutely from intriguing concept to practical reality by testing the result of their work in actual flight. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, notable pioneers such as the French Montgolfier brothers, the German Otto Lilienthal, and the American Octave Chanute blended careful study and theoretical speculation with the actual design, construction, and testing of flying vehicles.
Flight testing reallycame ofage with the Wright bro!hers whocarefullycombined a thorough understanding of the problem and potentiality of flight with-for their time-sophisticated ground and flight-test methodolo- gies and equipment. After their success above the dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17,1903, the brothers determined to refine their work and generate practical aircraft capable of routine operation. Out of their work and its subsequent inspiration can be traced the history of all subsequent powered winged vehicles, just as the lineage of all sophisticated rockets and missiles can he traced back to the work of Robert Goddard in the 1920’s.
The Miami Valley has always occupied a special place in the hearts of aviation enthusiasts, for it was here that the great revolution in powered flight that transformed the world was first conceptualized and successfully pursued. Today, the scientists and engineers working amid the sophisticated laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base toil under skies that witnessed the passage of a host of aeronautical pioneers: the Wrights themselves, “Shorty” Schroeder, Thurman Bane, Jimmy Doolittle, Lee Tower, Al Boyd, Chuck Yeager, Jesse Jacobs, Bob Ettinger, Pete Knight, “Peet” Odgers, to list just a few. The history they and many others made has taken aviation from the wood and fabric biplane droning along at forty miles per hourto blended-body hypersonic conceptualizations of transatmospheric aerospace planes of the present day.
Today, few would openly speak of limits to the future of flight, for those who have-as with Kelvin-have been proven equally naive. Likewise, those who have often confidently predicted some great advance have found-to their pleasure-that the reality of aviation progress has most often outstripped their most optimistic predictions. Between this Scylla of pessimism and Charybdis of optimism, however, lies one eternal truth: whatever progress is made (and whatever limits are challenged and overcome) will be done so by the courage of the flight testers and flight researchers who follow in the wake of all those who have gone before.
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