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Aviation historian reflects on significance of GlobalFlyer

By Kristin Magette



The teams from Virgin Atlantic and Scaled Composites have moved on to their next projects. Pilot Steve Fossett is planning his next adventure. And the record books are freshly etched with the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer's non-stop solo flight around the world. Now, only the passing of time will determine the kind of mark the project will leave on aviation and on society.

Robin Higham, Kansas State University professor emeritus of history, said he believes Fossett's accomplishment with the GlobalFlyer will, indeed, be listed among the greats in aviation history. To illustrate, he drew an analogy to the accomplishments of Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to cross the Atlantic solo in 1927.

"Comparing it in my mind, Lindbergh crossed 3,300 miles in about 33 hours. That was a great milestone," he said. "Fossett's flight, in a sense, proved (the advantages of) carbon fiber construction, just like Lindbergh proved the radial engine."

Higham pointed out one significant difference between the adventures of Lindbergh and Fossett -- the technology available at the time of the record attempt.

"When Lindbergh took off and went out of sight, nobody knew where he was until he came over Paris. Steve Fossett, on the other hand, had the advantage of flight control that could tell him the weather throughout the world," he said.

Technology was a key part of the GlobalFlyer mission, from the equipment available onboard the plane, to the computers and systems used on the ground to support the record attempt. From global positioning systems to advanced weather and wind tracking, Higham said Fossett had distinct advantages that made his 67-hour solo flight possible. He added that, just as with programs in space exploration, the technology developed for and proven by the GlobalFlyer mission will become more significant to the general population as it is applied to everyday needs.

"Ultimately, there's a trickle-down of technology," he said. "The space program can be seen as very expensive and irrelevant, but a lot of the technologies come down to society -- technology that was developed for space can now be found in our cars, for example."

Higham concluded that the GlobalFlyer record will be historically significant for many years to come, especially with the important developments in technology that were made with the successful flight.

"The success of the GlobalFlyer shows in many ways both how technology has advanced and how aviation has, in a sense, shrunk the world," he said.

Winter 2002