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Fueling a New Century of Aviation

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Americans love an adventure. We like to watch them and we like to be a part of them. After all, we are the descendants of pioneers whose desire for a better life was mixed with a spirit of adventure. These, of course, were our ancestors, but this characteristic, this desire to explore the unknown, even in the 21st century, remains a dynamic a part of the American culture. While we no longer cross the plains on horseback or in a prairie schooner, this same spirit of adventure continues to define us, just in new and different ways. Aviation is a good example. Early in the history of aviation, when almost every flight was a dangerous new undertaking, Americans were at the forefront. Whether it was inventing the airplane itself, testing new designs, trying out high altitude aircraft or something as dramatic as being the first person to cross the Atlantic alone--as Charles Lindbergh did in 1927--it was usually an American who was at the controls.

The remarkable thing is that this spirit of the early aviators, a legacy of our ancestors, hasn't been lost in the 21st century. In just the past five years, whole new avenues of aviation, aerospace engineering and adventure have been explored and conquered by American pilots and engineers.

Just last week, Steve Fossett, a native of Tennessee, flew his single-engine jet aircraft around the world in 67 hours without stopping for gas. No one has ever flown a jet that far without stopping. But that wasn't the only aviation first of the 21st century. Last year, a privately-funded aircraft piloted by Mike Melvill became the first non-governmental "spacecraft" -- flying a trajectory that took it into space and home again.

However, each of these daring flights is more than just an adventure. They have also enhanced our understanding of aviation and opened some exciting avenues for future research. For example, the jet engine that Fossett used to fly around the world is a model of efficiency and fuel economy and has already given the aviation industry some new insights into designing future aircraft propulsion systems.

While these particular flights were extensively covered in the national media, it would be a mistake to assume that this kind of adventure is available to just a few. In Idaho there is a young aviator, Jared Aicher, who is planning his own "'round-the-world trip." Partnering with the Experimental Aircraft Association, and flying a plane made entirely of high tech composite materials, he is raising money for the "Young Eagles Foundation." This is an organization that encourages young people to become interested and involved in aviation and aerospace. Jared says that his inspiration for flying and now taking a rare around-the-world flight came as a young boy watching the crop dusters make their low passes and precision turns over the fields near his home. It prompted a passion which in a few weeks will launch him on his own adventure.

However, what is heartening as we watch these daring Americans test the limits of aviation is to remember that while they are using sophisticated machines and technology, what motivates them, whether its Mike Melvill's trip into space, or Idahoan Jared Aicher's trip around the world, is not just the science or the engineering involved, but also, that profound American desire for adventure.