The Power Of Stories

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The other day, when PBS announced they will air a Nova special about Solar Impulse on January 31, I typed “Solar Impulse” into AVweb’s search engine to see how we’ve covered it. I found 73 hits, dating back to 2003. We covered the project pretty thoroughly, from inception to completion, yet the goal of the project wasn’t really about aviation at all — the organizers aimed to promote clean energy technologies. Nonetheless, it involved an airplane, and a challenge — it personified the age-old story of obsession in pursuit of an elusive and unprecedented goal.

Stories like this might seem irrelevant to some pilots, compared to articles about new airplanes, or avionics, or regulations, nuts and bolts kinds of things that we all need to know. But I think adventure stories are essential to the whole experience of aviation. Take someone for their first flight in a small airplane, and they might decide to become a pilot, but lots of folks enjoy the ride and never come back. Movies, books and museums can communicate to people that aviation is part of something bigger, and they can be part of that story. Stories have the power to inspire people to pursue the challenging sport or vocation of aviation.

So besides the Nova special, I was glad to read about the plans in Colorado to open a new Exploration of Flight museum, at Centennial Airport. The project’s Blue Sky Gallery will provide interactive exhibits and activities about aviation. Visitors will get to try out a flight simulator, and learn about famous aviators of the past. The programming is designed to “educate, entertain, and inspire,” according to the museum website. All this aims to help to recruit new workers needed in the aviation sector, from pilots to mechanics to flight attendants. Russ Niles wrote recently about the death of ultralight pilot Bill Lishman, who taught Canada geese to follow him in flight. His story inspired the movie Fly Away Home, a fiction version of the event, but it captured the spirit of ultralight flying. I’ll bet that movie planted a seed in at least a few people who got out there and tried ultralights for themselves.

I wrote about the inspiration of books a few years ago, and readers weighed in with their own favorites. Do you have any to add? What about movies or museums?

Comments (20)

Reading the blog reminds me of President John F. Kennedy September 12, 1962 "We choose to go to the Moon" speech.

Wiki pedia has the speech in writing and you tube has videos.

I heard the speech as a young teenager looking for direction. I hear the words over and over when my project or endeavor becomes more challenging than anticipated.

"We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win .."

Aviation includes everything on the fringes of flight. We need all the skills and knowledge everyone can dream up to have a safe flight and do it again and again.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | January 30, 2018 1:26 PM    Report this comment

This reminds me of the story of NASA spending millions on a pen that would write in space (when a pencil would do just fine). We've lost sight of the fact that that going around the world without internal combustion does not require hyper-advanced technology so much as a sailboat.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 30, 2018 3:05 PM    Report this comment

Ah yes, reminds me of "Gone with the wing". Epic drama focusing on the life of an aerodynamically petulant southern pilot and his tangled love affair with an air traffic controller. The one novel that gives me chills to this day!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 30, 2018 7:26 PM    Report this comment

Rafael Sierra
I have searched for your book listed above
but was unable to find it anywhere
is the name correct?
It sounds like a book I'd like to read.

dave ahrens

Posted by: David Ahrens | January 31, 2018 5:58 AM    Report this comment

Mark, I can just see the astronauts whipping out their Case pocket knives to sharpen pencils while NASA spends millions on a pencil sharpener. Actually those NASA "space pens" work really well.

Posted by: Richard Montague | January 31, 2018 7:05 AM    Report this comment

The power and inspiration of stories and books. I still remember reading a story as a child about a dad and his son flying I am guessing in a cub. the story line included springing an oil leak in the line to the pressure gauge and the son taping it up for his dad so that they could complete the flight safely. A story written from the child's perspective and written for children. It was a fun read for me as a kid and the memory stuck for over 50 years. I have no idea of the short story name or author from so long ago. However as evidence of me reading this publication, I have been employed in general aviation for 38 years. Unfortunately, I never found the time/ finances to become a pilot.

Posted by: John Lock | January 31, 2018 9:16 AM    Report this comment

Richard, the point is (pun intended) that there was no reason to complicate the testing of batteries and electric motors by putting it into a hyper-tech vehicle with all the complications of aviation and weather. Such testing is best done on ground vehicles where you can concentrate on the electrics at hand WITHOUT wasting 13 years of development effort on an airframe and a vast support network. Just imagine the advances in electric power their team could have accomplished if they did not waste 90% of the project effort on the design(and support) of the test vehicle.

Inspiration? Anyone who takes an honest assessment of the vast amounts of carbon emissions expelled in order to make this "clean" flight happen should come away with the sober assessment that this is another example of needing to view a system in total before boasting that it's "clean". Maybe I'm old but but this is a classic "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" kind of wizardry.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 31, 2018 9:55 AM    Report this comment

I like that Mark. It's like promoting "beautiful clean coal" energy.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 31, 2018 10:37 AM    Report this comment

Mark -

A few points to keep in mind -

This is a site about aviation, not electrical engineering. The topic of this column is "The Power of Stories".

As Mary says, "... adventure stories are essential to the whole experience of aviation." And this one "personified the age-old story of obsession in pursuit of an elusive and unprecedented goal."

As Klaus says, "Aviation includes everything on the fringes of flight."

There's a grand tradition of round-the-world flights.

Solar Impulse wasn't a project to develop a commercial product. It was a high-profile stunt to publicize possibilities. Call it inspiration, if you will. Promoters know what will grab the public's attention and change their ways of thinking.

Not all development is for mundane practical purposes. NASA could have saved billions by not sending men into space at all. Just imagine the advances in air and space vehicles their team could have accomplished if they did not "waste" 90% of their effort on sending men to the moon.

There are plenty of other activities in aviation that have a much bigger carbon footprint than the Solar Impulse project. No need to strain at gnats.

Posted by: Rollin Olson | January 31, 2018 3:20 PM    Report this comment

"The Power of Stories"

Rollin, I agree, stories have power to persuade and this was a stunt.
Unfortunately the inspiring of people to do very dangerous expensive things (that run counter to the main reason for the "adventure" in the first place) seems, at best, misplaced. Aviation needs rational people making rational decisions to move aviation forward. That's what Bleriot and Lindbergh and Hughes did. I certainly don't want more danger and more expense and high maintenance costs and sever limitations that the Solar Impulse presents. It's NOT a way forward in any sense of the word that I have been able to see.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 31, 2018 5:17 PM    Report this comment

"When I was flying around the world in my solar airplane, I remember looking at the sun that was giving energy to my four electric motors and their huge propellers. There was no noise, no pollution, no fuel... and I could fly forever. At a certain moment I thought 'this is science fiction, I'm in the future.' And then I realized, 'no, it's wrong, I'm in the present; this is what the technologies of today already allow me to do. It's the rest of the world that is in the past, with old and inefficient devices'."


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 31, 2018 5:35 PM    Report this comment

"Life is short, fly fast!" -Roy LoPresti

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 31, 2018 6:41 PM    Report this comment

"Life is short, multitask!" Rafael Sierra

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 31, 2018 7:01 PM    Report this comment

SO many engines needing electrons on the NASA X-57 'Maxwell' ... SO few nearby coal fired plants to charge the low energy density batteries.

Thank God that Al Gore invented the internet and HD TV.

I'm old, too ... and I am VERY tired of people calling something "green" when there is -- in fact -- a charlatan hiding behind a curtain somewhere as was pointed out. And I'm tired of hearing about global warming ... OH ... climate change. I'm so bummed out that my Cessna is spewing out SO much CO2 and lead for the 30-40 hours I fly per year anymore. Maybe the Solar Impulse will change all that?

As I see it, aviation -- broadly defined -- is about two things. Moving people and things from A to B and recreational enjoyment. Anything that can make the first category safer or more efficient ... fine. But it is unlikely to do anything for the second. At least while I'm on the right side of the grass.

A "story" and a stunt is all it is. Problem is -- as was pointed out -- everyone will now be thinking it's possible to power airliners that way. In an airport restaurant a few years ago, a millennial actually told me that she thought laser powered cars are the future. (I ain't making that up!). I asked her how she thought that'd work. "Will the laser point at the tires and make 'em move," I said. Sigh.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 1, 2018 6:34 AM    Report this comment

My latest retirement scheme is to sell "honest YARS" extension-cord futures to frequent-flyer hippies. There's gonna be a HUGE market for trans-oceanic-length airliner power cords!

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | February 1, 2018 8:04 AM    Report this comment

Larry, not sure about the "honest YARS" offer but I'm sure that Al Gore did not invent the internet. Also, "sun stroked" Bertrand's quote on "... old and inefficient devices." Was not meant to offend you. Keep warm.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 1, 2018 11:53 AM    Report this comment

I've always loved hearing the "NASA spent millions to develop a pen that would write in zero G while the Russians used a pencil" story even though it's not true. You can't use a pencil in a spacecraft. The risk is too high that the flakes/tiny pieces of graphite that come off of a pencil in normal use would float into the worst possible location and cause all sorts of interesting problems. Graphite is an electrical conductor.

Posted by: Rick Durden | February 1, 2018 3:09 PM    Report this comment

Rick, so is urine.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 1, 2018 3:32 PM    Report this comment

I just watched the episode on NOVA.
Here is the verbiage from the beginning of the show:
"The zero fuel flight begins in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates"

I can't help laughing when those words were being spoken over the image of the landing 747 CARGO PLANE that is delivering the plane to the start point. Sorry, but I had no idea how much I under estimated the the amount of fuel that was used to make a no fuel flight until I watched the full documentary.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | February 1, 2018 6:49 PM    Report this comment

Mark you are so skeptical. (ok sarc off) The no fuel lie is proven science. We still have the snake oil salesmen peddling their wares, now it is just high tech. I love watching my neighbors running around so smugly in their high tech coal burning (a.k.a. electric) cars. They are completely clueless and very obnoxious. I even had one ask me why the Fire Department was still using old fashion diesel powered trucks. Guess we don't have long enough power cords, then too maybe honest Yars can come up with a design for us. We could put electric power stations at every fire hydrant. Oh, wait a minute, we don't have hydrants in over 1/2 of the town. Yars we will need a few longer cords.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | February 1, 2018 9:49 PM    Report this comment

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