In the early decades, flying was promoted with a spirit that can only be called evangelical. No one was entirely sure what the aeroplanes of the future would be like, but they would certainly be worthy of the visions of the pioneers. They foresaw many of the technical advances we enjoy, but not the development of the indispensable/nonessential transport system constantly distorted by relentless economic pressures of today that serves as the greatest advert for rail travel ever conceived.
When the last of the Concordes was retired the world was a little greyer; much as on the day when the transatlantic ocean liners passed into history. The Concorde was a familiar part of the last decades of the 20th century, but we’d become so used to thinking of them as a handful of luxury planes accessible to the very few that we forget that when they were still on the drawing boards the supersonic passenger liner was supposed to be a mainstay of air travel, not a rarity, and that every major airline with a long-distance service was expected to operate them.
After all, the supersonic passenger liner was the next logical step in air travel. First open-cockpit planes, then multi-engined planes, closed cabins, pressurised cabins, turboprops, jets, and finally supersonic. What else was the future supposed to be except ever higher and faster?
When Barnes Wallis put forward his famous Swallow supersonic aeroplane in the 1950s, it could have jumped right off the pages of Amazing Science Fiction at Mach 2.5. It was a sweeping dart of a design with the fuselage blending into the swing-wings and no tail at all, because control would be achieved by the pairs of engines that sat on pivots on the very wing tips.
The Northrop Flying Wing was an aircraft that can only be called ahead of its time. This was a machine that by some uncanny fluke managed to leap off the pages of Air Wonder Stories and into the skies. This had to be the aeroplane of the FUTURE. It had that bold, clean line to it; that classic shape that stood out like the spindle shape of a V2 rocket.
It was a sweeping dart of a design with the fuselage blending into the swing-wings and no tail at all, because control would be achieved by the pairs of engines that sat on pivots on the very wing tips.
If there is one cry that sums up our attitude toward the 21st century it’s: “Where the Hell is my jet pack?” That’s what the future was supposed to be all about, right? Strap on the old jet pack and fly over the rush hour traffic. It looked so easy on Jonny Quest. James Bond would be undressed without one.
It’s not as though people weren’t trying. In the early ’60s the Bell company worked on a flying belt for the US Army, which had visions of infantrymen leaping over mountains and rivers like so many supermen. Using a rocket powered by hydrogen peroxide, the results were pretty promising, but for one thing: a portable flying belt, for all its other problems, couldn’t carry enough fuel for a flight of more than twenty seconds. That might be enough for a cool entrance at the Superbowl, but its hardly what you’d call the killer app.