We all wonder at the flight of birds, baseballs, and airplanes. Well, I’m neither an ornithologist nor a pitching coach, but I am an engineer. And I would like to tell you about the wonder of flying machines. I’ve watched many airplanes takeoff while standing at ground level not too far away. Besides commercial airplanes, I’ve flown in a fair number of other planes, quite a few rides in C-130’s, once in a C-123 (and once was enough), once in a T-33 single engine jet trainer, once in a float plane, once in a biplane, a few other rides in small planes, and a couple rides in gliders. They were all fun to ride in, but watching a takeoff while standing nearby in the open is something altogether different.
An airplane goes through many stages in its life — from a brief flash of an idea to real flying metal. As each stage runs its course, any number of things can go wrong. The initial concept itself changes rapidly as new ideas come to the forefront. Some of those ideas are good, and some are not, but eventually some of each get incorporated. Then the hard design gets going. Calculations are made. Schematics are drawn. Parts are selected. New part designs are developed. And all through the design process mistakes are made. They usually aren’t big, or else the plane would fail miserably somewhere in its development, or it would possibly turn out to be too expensive. It is not uncommon to find better ways to do things, and many times those things cause changes to be made, but some “mistakes” become apparent too late in the process, and we learn to live with them.
As the design progresses and corrections are made, finished drawings start to flow out of the engineering departments. And, you guessed it, they also have errors in them. So, they get checked, and the ones that are found get fixed. As manufacturing goes on, other problems arise, and most of the mistakes that cause them are fixed, but not all.
One day a hanger door opens and a new plane is rolled out. It won’t be perfect. Perfection is always beyond reach. And ultimately, there is only one way to be sure it will fly…FLY IT!
That first flight of a new design is an amazing thing. I’m sure the Wright brothers were no less amazed than we are today when a new design takes flight for the first time. I’ve seen it, and many others have seen it, but most people never do. So, let’s see if I can make it real to you.
It will be a day of good, if not great weather. It won’t happen at the crack of dawn. It will be near midday, not too early to get the plane ready, and not too late to curtail the flight to come. I’ve seen many airplanes takeoff, as I have said, but watching a design that has never flown takeoff for it’s first flight is especially breath taking. I’ve seen new models of the 767 and the 747 takeoff for the first time, and I’ve seen the first takeoff of the ultra flexible 787. They were all nail biters in their own way, and they were all spectacular.
So, don’t just watch an airplane takeoff from where you sit or stand at an airport waiting area window. Find a place to watch either a large jet or a jet fighter takeoff, and be right there on the ground nearby. Listen to it. Feel the ground shake. Ask yourself, how can this be possible? How can a machine seem so alive? And even if it isn’t the first takeoff of a new design, it will be new to you every time you see it. And the imperfections will no longer matter. No one ever asks a bird how it feels.