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Airplane Essay


Kent Kresa
Northrop Grumman Corporation

I'll never forget my excitement as I watched the maiden flight of the B-2 bomber from a hot tarmac in the desert town of Palmdale, California, in 1989. The flight was the culmination of a dream by the late aviation pioneer Jack Northrop, who had first proposed the flying-wing design more than 50 years earlier. Jack Northrop had developed flying-wing bombers, but none had been widely adopted. With the B-2, however, his dream finally came of age. Watching the bomber go through its maneuvers, I couldn't help but think that this was the future of aviation, a chevron-like structure in which every part of the aircraft contributes to lift. Moreover, the bomber employed stealth characteristics—it was fortunate that the physics of radar reflectivity fit nicely with the physics of flight.

Even more than its aeronautical design, the B-2's electronics pointed toward the future. A triumph of integrated systems and circuitry, the B-2 represented a milestone in the growing dominance of electronics in aerospace engineering. This might seem strange to people not familiar with the industry. In fact, it would have seemed strange to me when I began my career in aerospace engineering in the 1960s, when the focus was on engines and structure. At the time, jet propulsion and wide-body fuselages were in the process of changing aviation dramatically by shortening the time span of air travel and making it affordable for the general public.

But since then most advances in aviation have come about as a result of electronics and its two prodigious offspring—computers and communications. I got a glimpse of the tremendous potential of these areas while I was working at the U.S. government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. DARPA had developed a prototype system called the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which eventually evolved into the Internet. I can't claim to have foreseen how this new medium would blossom into one of the foundations of globalism, but even then I was struck by how a network could make individual computers substantially more useful. It occurred to me that at some future point everything would be "netting," even aircraft.

When I turned to management, "netting" became a major focus of my career. It was also the driving force in many other aerospace careers as well, so that by the end of the 20th century the industry had been reconfigured by advances in electronic systems and networks. Today, for instance, U.S. military aircraft are connected by data links to external sensors and computer processing that guide them to enemy targets. Even the munitions that aircraft launch can be redirected in midflight by networks that feed them continuous real-time information. Commercial aviation grows ever more dependent on electronic networks. With air traffic expected to double by 2015, new air traffic control systems will make greater use of satellite navigation to accommodate the increase. Similarly, air cargo transport is developing radio-based systems that can track individual freight items through every point of the supply chain.

In all of these cases the ability to integrate networked systems into the operation of aircraft is setting new standards for modern-day flight. The military can achieve a more accurate and powerful impact with fewer resources. The commercial system can offer greater transportation and logistical capacity at lower costs.

As we look forward to the next 100 years of aviation, we can expect electronics to continue leading the way in innovation. Certainly there will be additional breakthroughs in aircraft design, such as flying-wing structures developed for commercial transportation and morphing wings that change their shape in flight. But it will be mainly the flight of electrons that pushes the envelope of aerospace engineering in ways we can only dream of today.


     Early Years
     Control Surfaces
     WW I
     Early Commercial
     WW II, Jet Engines
     Computers, Private Planes
     Essay - Kent Kresa

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