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Wright Brothers' centenary provokes aviation speculationfest

100 years on, and still no flying car

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Last week's centenary of the Wright Brothers' first flight has once again provoked a veritable speculationfest among aviation futurists.

Hypersonic intercontinental passenger jets feature heavily among the life-enhancing advances which are, as ever, just around the corner. As are the human colonisation of Mars, anti-matter propulsion systems and - our own particular favourite - a flying car in every driveway.

Sadly, the celebrations organised to celebrate 100 years of gravity-defying human achievment came to a sticky end when the replica Wright Flyer wheeled out of the hanger at Kittyhawk failed to negotiate the inclement weather.

Which might well serve as a warning to those who frequently indulge in aeronautical blue-sky thinking without regard for the practicality, or indeed the desirability, of their vision.

The fact is that air travel is a almost universally miserable experience for the average punter, and no amount of high technology is going to change that.

Airbus Industries is well on the way to delivering the Airbus A380 Super Jumbo, a 555-passenger double-decker. This behemoth may be conventional in its design, but here's how it will, according to Airbus, redefine the air transport paradigm: "Offering about a third more seating and far more available floor space than its closest competitor, the A380 will deliver an unparalleled level of comfort, with wider seats and aisles, open spaces for passengers to stretch their legs and access to lower-deck amenities."

This is, of course, complete nonsense. The first thing operators will do is rip out the planned "leisure areas" (which include a gym, no less) and fill the space so created with more seats and fill the space between the seats with more surly and obstreperous flight attendants and keep you waiting for three hours at the airport while security ensure that you are able to enjoy this unique flying experience in comfort and safety.

As noted, the A380 is nothing more than a very big jet. Boeing is countering the Airbus challenge with a rather more futuristic Sonic Cruiser. It's designed to carry 200-250 passengers at Mach 0.95 to 0.98, and is presumably aimed at the Concorde market for fast intercontinental business travel.

Concorde failed for two reasons: it couldn't cross the Pacific and the Americans didn't like it. Well, the latter is a little unfair, since many in the US rightly objected to the truly stupendous racket the thing made wherever it went. It's hard to see how Boeing will address these issues and others which did not exist when Concorde was designed, such as jet exhaust destruction of the ozone layer.

Neither the A380 or Sonic Cruiser is really pushing back the envelope of aircraft design. For that we must look to radical new technologies such as the Mach 5+ scramjet, as tested at Mach 7.6 by the intrepid Australians.

With few moving parts and moving like Rio Ferdinand running from a drugs test, the a scramjet-powered plane could transport you from Los Angeles to Tokyo and back before you'd even left for the aiport in the first place. Well, almost.

That is, naturally, if they can get the thing to work properly in the first place. There's a distinct temptation to view such enterprises with world-weary scepticism, given that we live in a world where entire cities are blacked out by failures in the elecricity supply and trains - a pretty low-tech piece of kit if ever there was one - commonly fail to negotiate short journeys without crashing/breaking down/failing to turn up in the first place (delete as appropriate).

Perhaps a more lateral approach to air transport is therefore required, such as that offered by Nasa's Small Aircraft Transportation System (Sats).

Sats eschews the classic "hub and spoke" model in favour of "a nation of air travellers hopping between small airports on a point-to-point, on-demand basis in 'air-taxis'."

As part of this idea, Nasa is looking to develop so-called "personal air vehicles (PAVs)", which it claims: "would be affordable for the general public and self-operated without the need for a pilot."

Sounds good, but isn't this straying dangerously close to the sunlit heavens inhabited by that most elusive of aviation dreams - the flying car?

Yes, as I look under the Xmas tree this morning, there is no present even remotely resembling a flying car in size or shape. Indeed, I am devastated to learn that the Moller M400 Skycar is still unavailable for immediate delivery. Although Moller bravely asserts that it is looking for certfication "no later than December 31, 2005", I can't help feeling that the dream is no nearer now than it was when we first mentioned this must-have suburban people mover.

Whatever the future of aviation holds, I think it is fair to say that nothing we have seen gives hope for a better or more enjoyable airborne travel experience. And - despite all the twittering on about ion drives and SSTs - one fundamental question remains unaswered: "Where's my bloody flying car?" ®

Related links

BBC report on the future of aviation
US Centennial of Flight Commission overview of high-speed transport in commercial aviation.

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