LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
On a weekend in April, seven visionaries of the aviation and aerospace world gather to hash out the future of flight. They are mostly engineers by profession or temperament, and meet the call to prognosticate carefully, like pilots on full instrument approach. After all, who among these seven, had they been alive in 1903, would have predicted the
helicopter, the stealth bomber,
the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the supersonic airliner, the 820-passenger jet, the 127,900-pound-thrust turbofan engine or the low-cost launch platform for suborbital flight—most of which were worked on, and some of which were invented, by members of this very group? But the call to prognosticate will prove irresistible. These may be feet-on-the-ground men, but they love to fly, and to build machines that fly.
Since Kitty Hawk, much that was predicted
in this magazine in hundreds of cover
stories and thousands of articles about aviation has come true, yet some
enduring dreams of flight remain
unrealized: Air cars do not flit about our suburbs. Passengers cannot routinely buy their way onto supersonic or space-bound machines. The airline system, once seemingly boundless, is in disarray and threatened by terrorism. So there
is much to discuss: Personal and space flight, yes, along with hypersonic
scramjets, flying FedEx robots, synthetic vision, wing morphing and an airport that catches and launches small aircraft like a shortstop in a World Series game.
The environmentalist: Paul MacCready, founder of AeroVironment, is one of the most celebrated designers
of fuel-efficient air and ground vehicles (including human- and solar-powered ones) and a pioneer in unmanned aviation. Tirelessly ekes more from less. MacCready appeared in Popular Science 25 years ago, running shirtless alongside his Gossamer Albatross, the pedal-powered airplane that a few months later crossed the English Channel.
The fighter: Boeing's George Muellner is a 31-year Air Force veteran and former test pilot who led the program that developed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. He recently headed Boeing's top-secret Phantom Works research division and now directs Boeing's work for the Air Force.
The propulsion man: Mike Benzakein, general manager of advanced engineering at GE Aircraft Engines, helped design the big, quiet GE90 for the Boeing 777. His mandate to look beyond turbine technology will help shape the replacement of the jet engine.
The airliner advocate: Englishman Adam Brown is a veteran of Airbus since before it was Airbus, and his market predictions were crucial to the multinational European conglomerate's gamble on the A380 superjumbo project.
The radical engineer: Burt Rutan, perhaps the most acclaimed postwar aircraft designer of all, built the round-the-world-on-a-single-tank-of-gas Voyager craft and is currently in the spotlight for his drive to prove the viability of low-cost suborbital flight. His canard-wing VariEze made the cover of Popular Science in 1978; his SpaceShipOne did the same this July.
The systems man: Mark Moore of NASA is a leader in that agency's push to develop an innovative, high-tech air-taxi-based aviation system to liberate regional travelers from the clutches of the hub-and-spoke big-jet infrastructure.
The impresario: Peter Diamandis is co-founder of Space Adventures and the International Space University. He has an aerospace engineering degree from MIT and a medical degree from Harvard. Founder of the $10 million international suborbital-flight competition called X Prize, in which Burt Rutan is merely the most famous contender.