When Carl Bellinger, a Republic test pilot, dropped by Chuck Yeager's house early one Sunday morning to borrow some tools, he was startled to see that Yeager was using the Collier Trophy—the most prestigious award in aviation—to store scrap nuts and bolts on his workbench. But say this about Yeager: He was at least getting some practical use out of the thing, and he actually did something to earn it. He won the Collier in 1947 for flying the Bell X-1 to Mach 1. He didn't just talk about it, or plan it—he won the cup for actually doing something.
That's apparently not a requirement anymore. Now you're a Collier candidate on the strength of an idea. We first noticed this in 2005 when we caught some heat from Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn for wondering why Eclipse won the Collier before it ever delivered an airplane. Not that we thought Eclipse didn't deserve the award, mind you, we simply noted that National Aeronautic Association awarded the Collier to Eclipse for innovation in the production of light jets long before the company had actually produced any for delivery.
Now, according to the folks at NAA, incomplete and untested technology is worthy of aviation's holy grail as witnessed by this year's selection of ADS-B. The criteria for selection of the Collier Trophy is very clear, to me, anyway. It goes, according to NAA, to "the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year." (My emphasis.)
It's that last part that gnawed at me when the Eclipse 500 won the award three years ago. At the time, the airplane wasn't certified, none were in customers' hands and yet the NAA was crediting the company with starting a revolution in air travel. Eclipse may have in fact done this, for all we know. And although there are some promising signs, it really hasn't happened yet. The whole idea of a revolution could tank, in my opinion.
That same is true of ADS-B. It looks like great technology and it may very well be the leading edge of a bright new future. But for all the talk, it still doesn't exist in a form that "demonstrates actual use." It could still end its days as just another line item cut from the FAA budget.
Certainly, if I was the blood, sweat and tears behind the Dassault 7X, the A380 or even the Epic jet, which all lost out to ADS-B this year, I'd be grateful for the nice lunch, but wondering why else I was in the room. The Collier is for people and technologies that have been proven as game changers in aviation. That's not to say there shouldn't be an award for the hopeful and optimistic projects out there that might just make it. But the Collier shouldn't be it.