There is very little between me and the elements. I am flying a 1940’s Tiger Moth aircraft, it is made of cloth and wire and I realise my leg is wedged upagainst a metal rod which appears to control the petrol flow to the engine. As the pilot alters the speed, I see the rod move forward and think that if I rested my leg a little to the left, I would actually stop it working. Then it comes times for me to take control. The pilot lifts both his hand in the air and says I am flying solo.
Flying this plane involves little more than grabbing a large metal stick between my legs and pushing it in the direction I want to go. I head for the horizon. The simplicity of it all is the most worrying. If I was surrounded by dials, computers, warning lights and the paraphernalia of modern flight, I would feel cosseted by the technology. But as it is, there is nothing between me and the thin air around me. There is a funny and uncomfortable feeling in my tummy.
This, I hope, will make for an interesting start to our Horizons television programme on the future of flight. But it is not only a useful and fun visual reference. There are elements from this earlier age of flying that are being incorporated in the next generation of commercial flights.
Bombardier, the Canadian aircraft company, is making its next C-Series of commercial aircraft from a textile like material instead of metal just as in this 50 year old plane. To see how they are making the plane, I fly to Belfast where they are build the wings.
It starts with a piece of material that looks and indeed feels like heavy canvas. Enough to make a sturdy tent from, but not the thing from which you’d want to build a plane. But after it gets baked and treated, this carbon fire becomes rigid and light and indeed, they assure me, safe enough to form the basis of an aircraft.
However, finding new ways to build aircraft is important not least because reducing weight means using less fuel and therefore makes it cheaper and less polluting to fly. In 2006 aeroplanes accounted for 12% of all transport CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Association. In 2001 the cost of fuel represented just 13% of an airline’s cost, according to the International Air Transport Association, that has now risen to 30%.
There are over 17,000 jet aircraft serving the world’s major airports. But according to the Air Transport Action Group, it’s thought 12,000 new planes will need to come on stream to meet passenger growth and emissions targets by 2020. That’s 23 new planes a week for the next 10 years.
Outside of the main aerospace companies, we heard there was some interesting work being done in a Swiss aircraft hanger. So from Belfast I am flying on a plane that carries 140 passengers to Switzerland to see a very different kind of aircraft.
A nice team of stewards and stewardesses are letting us film on board. The plane we are going to see is much larger than this one. It has a wingspan that is larger than the massive Boeing Dreamliner but it creates no pollution, but despite its size it only has room for one person.
It doesn’t start well as we misread the call sheet and go to the wrong town. When we eventually arrive, the pilot and leading light of the project isn’t there. He is giving a motivational speech in Paris and flying himself back. Except he hasn’t come back yet and if he is much later he won’t be able to talk to us as he has another speech to give. But he arrives and the female producer goes a little weak at the knees at his bright blue eyes, pilots outfit and general daring demeanor
The plane s called the Solar Impulse and in July 2010 it completed a 26 hour flight including nearly 9 hours of night flying powered only by solar energy.
We are let into the plane’s hanger which has just hosted a VIP party keen to see the aircraft. Some posh meringues are still on a plate at the bar and I snaffle a few. The solar plane is amazing. But little is any of the technology it uses can be applied to the types of flights you and I might make. Its purpose is to act as a poster boy for the renewable energy industry. To get people excited about solar power. It may well achieve that, but in terms of directly applicable technology, I am afraid it has little to offer.
Flying is inherently polluting. There are widespread concerns about the environment but in reality people will not only continue to fly, those that fly are likely to fly will do so more often and more people who have never flown before will start to do so. What was a luxury has
an unremarkable part of ordinary life for millions of people. We are all jet-setters now.
Stopping people flying is not likely to be the practical way forward. But in a world of diminishing oil supplies and in which man mad global warming is threatening the stability of the planet, it is clear we have to do something go make flying more efficient and less destructive.
Around the world, every minute, IATA says every minute 56 planes take to the sky. That’s 29.6 million scheduled flights a year. Over the last ten years there’s been a 41% increase in passenger traffic. People aspire to travel and their aspirations are growing.
The companies involved in this industry believe they have an answer. Their new products are lighter, better, more efficient and therefore less polluting. So their answer in reducing pollution and ensuring the industry is more sustainable, is not to do less but to do more, They have products to sell and want us to buy more of them.
The people who are perhaps best placed to help solve this problem are also the people with product to sell. They may be right but I suppose it should give us pause for thought that the people who claim they have an answer to some of our pollution worries are also the people
making the planes that cause the pollution in the first place.
You can follow me and our travels around the world @AdamShawBiz
You can see a videos of me flying the Tiger Moth at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1mnE4RjkGg
You can see other videos at http://www.youtube.com/my_videos?feature=mhee