To mark the Society’s Centenary in 1966, the Students' and Graduates’ section asked some of the great names of aviation to predict what Aeronautics would be like in 2016. Peter Hearne, then head of one of Elliot Bros’ first groups to be involved in the development of electronic systems, gave a presentation called Flight Controls, the next 50 years. We asked DAVID WYATT CEng MRAeS, to look at Hearne’s paper and see what the great man got right.

This 1966 lecture gave a forecast of flight control systems might be flying in 2016. This 50 year period coincides (almost exactly) with my own career; I started in 1970 as an engineering apprentice at BOAC, Heathrow; 46 years later I work in Gama Aviation’s design office at Fairoaks airport.

The aircraft types cited in the lecture notes include the VC10 and Trident; these were both in service when I started with BOAC and (across the road) at BEA. Although I did not keep a tally of the lecturer’s predictions versus reality, the majority are indeed flying today. The lecture focusses on six subject areas, although my attention was drawn to the subjects that I am familiar with, anyone involved with avionics and flight controls will find something of interest. I never actually met Mr Hearne; so his lecture notes are the only way that I know of him. Based on these notes, he sounds like a very learned and far-sighted person.

There are many examples and predictions of future technologies given in the lecture notes, including diagrams and photographs; Some of these concepts (as they were in 1966) leapt of the page to me as recognisable 2016 technologies, for example the idea of using lasers in inertial navigation systems. There are subjects that I’m not so familiar with, e.g. “moletronics”; with the help of Google, I learned that this refers to single molecule electronics, a branch of nanotechnology. There are many references to future technologies that are now commonplace in the industry, e.g. fly-by-wire, satellite communications, touchscreen displays, data bus and wireless systems. In the majority of cases, I could easily change the tense in his lecture notes, e.g. from “future sensors will eliminate moving parts” into “todays sensors have no moving parts”.

One sensor technology that I’m aware of (through the industry press) but have no practical experience is that of controlling an aircraft directly from the brain. This was referred to in the lecture as “a complete departure from present day concepts…the technique would involve detection of signals from the pilot’s brain, and moving an actuator”. As far as I’m aware, flying via brain control is still a future concept for civil aviation, maybe it’s more advanced in the military world?

This lecture must have been met with some scepticism in 1966; reading these notes in 2016 was fascinating. Not all of the predictions turned into reality, for example Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) being “totally replaced by 2016”. That said, he was close to the mark with describing curved and steep approaches, these being achieved now via Microwave Landing Systems (MLS) and the Global Positioning System (GPS). In my sector of the industry (general aviation), localiser performance with vertical (LPV) guidance using the GPS is in widespread use.

Finally, in the lecturer’s summary, he says that “neither I nor any of my colleagues believe that the multi-farious electronic-trickery which I have described in this lecture will ever supersede the unique creative intelligence of man in aviation. The control systems and computers which I have described are not a replacement of man”. Arguably, this has happened with Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) having replaced the pilot in one sense, albeit with someone flying it from a ground station.

An enlightening set of lecture notes.

You can read Peter Hearne’s original lecture, Flight Controls, the next 50 years and then give us your own thoughts and predictions for 2066 by leaving a comment below.

If you enjoyed this post you can read an earlier blog post about Dietrich Kuchemann prediction on the Possible Types of Flying Vehicle in the Future and look out for the next post which will be published later on in the year.

David Wyatt
21 July 2016