In 1966, leading RAeS experts were invited to predict how they thought aviation and the aerospace industry might look 50 years on in 2016. BILL READ, FRAeS, looks at what they predicted and how accurate they proved to be.

In 2016 passengers will be able to commute via inner city VTOL airports. (Hawker Siddley and Brian Colquhoun and Partners)

“In 50 years, vertical takeoff and landing will have become a standard operating system, passenger flight at Mach 4 will be routine and interplanetary travel will be established,”(1) predicted A D Baxter who became RAeS President for 1966-67. Back in 1966 when the Royal Aeronautical Society celebrated its centenary year, leading experts of the day were invited to predict how they thought aviation and the aerospace industry would develop over the next fifty years up to 2016 and even up to 2066. Some of their conclusions were summarised in an article in the RAeS Centenary Garden Party brochure while a special Centenary Symposium devoted to future predictions (The Skyward Urge Aviation 1866-2016) was held at 4 Hamilton Place on 15-16 July 1966 organised by the RAeS Graduates and Students Section. At the suggestion of Prof John Allen (designer of the Hawk and now the RAeS’s most senior member), the Society also invited a number of engineers, researchers and scientists to give their views on the progress that might be foreseen for aerospace in the next hundred years, to be included in a special book, The Future of Aeronautics, which was published in 1970.

Looking through the pages of these publications gives a fascinating insight into how the experts of 1966 thought aviation might evolve in the future compared to the reality of what actually happened. While some of their predictions failed to come true, others were remarkably accurate.

Aircraft expansion

Predictions that air traffic levels would expand tenfold have proved to be true. (ATAG)

Looking at the future of air transport, many experts predicted its continued expansion. “There will be a tremendous increase in air travel,”(1) said Freddie Page, who later became Chairman and CE of British Aerospace. “Aircraft size will increase will go on increasing and fares will decrease to a point where crossing an ocean for one’s holiday will be commonplace,”(1) W N Neat accurately predicted. “[In 2016] air traffic will be as much as ten times as great than at present.” A statement that also proved to be very close to what actually happened. An air traffic growth chart from the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) shows that around 0.3bn passengers flew in 1966 while IATA Statistics for 2015 reported that there were 37.6m flights last year carrying over 3.5bn people - an increase of 11.67%

Prof K L C Legg was of the opinion that: “The distribution of airline business throughout the world is likely to change radically. It would seem that, by 2016, Europe could possibly capture something like 30-40% of the total market compared with 25% or so for the US with Africa and Latin America some 15% or more.”(3) Although Legg’s definition of airline business is not certain, the change in the airline market has gone in a different direction. A Boeing market outlook report published in 2015 stated that, of the 21,600 commercial aircraft flying in 2014, 20% (4,450) came from Europe, 31% (6,700) from North America and 10% (2,160) from Africa and Latin America. Asia accounted for 27% (5,850 aircraft).

Others thought that the introduction of remote video conferencing would make air travel unnecessary. “World Space TV channels now make communications aircraft obsolete,”(1) wrote author G Wansborough White. “The development of the video telephone, the possibility of conference between individuals in offices scattered over the world connected by such a device, must clearly make a need to travel less”(2) concurred RAeS 1947-9 President, Lord Kings Norton, Harold Roxbee Cox who became the Director of the National Gas Turbine Establishment and wrote the report that formed the blueprint for the Cranfield College of Aeronautics.

Supersonic travel

By 2016 we will be able to fly at over 6,000mph (RAeS)

In the decade when Concorde was being developed, many of the writers were convinced that supersonic transport would eventually become commonplace: “The widespread use of supersonic transport must be a foregone conclusion,” stated W N Neat. “Speeds will increase until it is possible to reach any part of the world, carry out one’s business and return within the day.”(1)

In addition to supersonic flight, some writers also thought that rockets would also be used for transportation. “Some of the longer networks will be serviced by space rockets,”(3) wrote J V Connolly. “Supersonic air liners will be commonplace and rocket transportation will be used for some purposes,”(1) predicted Freddie Page. “Within 50 years supersonic air travel will obviously be commonplace,” agreed Air Comm F R Banks. “Between 50 to 100 years from now, ‘packages of people’ will be shot by rocket to far flung parts of the world or they will be assisted by rocket in a vehicle (Dyna Soar) which will bounce along the upper atmospheric layer (100,000ft)”(1) Banks, who had earlier developed the high octane fuel used by the British team to win the final Schneider Trophy Race, served as RAeS President for 1969-70.

Nuclear aircraft

Concept image of a proposed Cold War nuclear-powered aircraft.

Another prediction was that aircraft of the future would be nuclear powered. “There is considerable promise in the application of nuclear energy for the propulsion of very large aircraft over very long ranges,”(2) said L G Dawson at the 1966 Symposium. “I can see our great grandchildren operating aircraft for civil purposes only, carrying holiday traffic and freight, operating them by nuclear propulsion from the centres of cities, vertically, noiselessly and efficiently,”(1) wrote David Keith-Lucas (RAeS President 1968-69 who also worked as Chief Designer, Technical Director and Research Director at Shorts).

However, the experts were aware that there might also be drawbacks to using nuclear power aboard aircraft. ”Nuclear aircraft do produce large amounts of radioactive material,” admitted L G Dawson. “It is the safety aspect which presents the major obstacle to their acceptance(2).” “The biggest problem of the nuclear aircraft ... is the danger of radioactivity in the event of a crash,”(2) said Ronald Smelt.

City centre VTOL stations

Passenger-carrying VTOL aircraft. (RAeS)

A future trend that many writers agreed was the replacement of conventional airports with city centre ‘Vports’ serviced by vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) regional transport aircraft. “Some form of VTOL will permit operation much nearer city centres,”(1) said Freddie Page. “Rotorcraft will have several elevated stations in most city centres,” suggested Prof J A J Bennett. “Runways will be abolished and aeroplanes will have acquired the capability and ease of the helicopter to operate in and out of confirmed areas. Rotorcraft will replace the fast automobile and the rotorbus will be a regular means of transport between cities.”(1)

A V Cleaver took a broader look at future transport infrastructure: “[In 2016] almost all long and medium-distance travel will be by air. While helicopters and other form of VTOL aircraft will have found increasingly widespread use … most intercity transport in such countries as the UK will be by improved surface vehicles, such as the 300mph hovertrain and electric cars with super storage batteries or fuel cells.”(1) Fifty years on, the electric car has become a viable form of transport and fast Trains have begun to compete with shorthaul flights, such as the Eurostar competing with aircraft on the crossChannel London-Paris route. While the UK is still waiting for 300mph trains, the technology is already there passengers at Shanghai airport can travel into the city by a magnetic levitation (Maglev) train capable of travelling at 311mph.

Pioneer British helicopter engineer R Hafner speaking at the 1966 RAeS Symposium issued a word of caution. “I expect the rotorcraft, operating mainly from Vports in cities, to play a dominant role in short- and medium- haul air transport,” he said but also accurately predicted why the VTOL concept might fail to take-off. “There has also been an unfavourable public reaction to the increased hazard in the street that has arisen from the operation of helicopters into the centre of Manhattan (PanAm building). These signs portend difficulties to the introduction of a VTOL transport system operating around the clock from the very heart of cities.”(2) 

Hafner also considered that safety issues would make it unlikely that everyone would have their own personal helicopters. “It has been said that the time will come when everybody, taking-off from the roof of his house, will fly his own helicopter. I am afraid I cannot subscribe to this idea. The thought of tens of thousands of amateur pilots in a limited air space in IFR conditions frightens me. Whereas an inexperienced or irresponsible yachtsman in collision with an ocean liner, at worst, will kill himself and his few companions, an amateur pilot in a similar situation will also destroy a large air liner with all souls aboard.” (2) The same argument is being used today against the introduction of flying cars or personal air vehicles flown by private individuals, as well as against the current proliferation of small UAVs.

Aircraft of the future


A modern proposed design for virtual aircraft windows. (Spike Aerospace)

What might the aircraft of 2016 look like? In addition to supersonic jets, rockets and VTOL regional aircraft, there might also be the airline passenger equivalent of the freight container. Speaking at the 1966 symposium, M W Thring suggested that: “We may see a comprehensive transport systems in which passengers load themselves and their luggage onto chair-carrying platforms which they may drive on their own vehicle to a rail station where it is transferred on the train and thence onto the plane.”(2) W H Molyneux also thought that cabin windows would become a thing of the past: “There seems little argument for retaining passenger windows in the transport aircraft of the future and it seems likely even the pilot’s window is ultimately destined to disappear. Can a sufficiently complete illusion of a window be created replacing it with a back-projection of television screen.” (2) While this prediction has not yet come to pass, it is currently the subject of serious proposals for future supersonic business jet designs (see Look Ma no windows, AEROSPACE, August 2015, p36) 

Designer of the Spitfire’s wing shape and RAeS President 1962-63 B S Shenstone thought that gliders might yet have more to offer: “The future of sailplanes may be in both of two directions: first a continuation of the present drive for increased range, speed and altitude … and secondly a drive for the increased use of sailplanes for scientific investigation of the air around us.” (2) - a prediction that has is currently realised with the Airbus Perlan glider being used to investigate the stratosphere (see

A H Wheeler even put forward the radical suggestion that some aircraft of the future might not need pilots: “An impending major technical breakthrough in agricultural aviation will be a form of ‘Robot’ flying machine which will supercede the existing generation of agricultural aircraft.”(2)

However, older aircraft designs would not be neglected. “Our great grandchildren … will spend their weekends flying gliders and Tiger Moths,”(1) wrote David KeithLucas.

To Mars by 1980?

NASA is still planning to send a manned mission to Mars but not until the 2030s. (NASA)

Turning to the future of space travel, experts were able to accurate predict a number of future trends but were over optimistic about the timescale. With the rapid progress of the Apollo missions towards its goal of landing a man on the Moon, speakers at the Symposium were convinced that manned missions to other planets would follow. “It is likely that men will reach Mars by the 1980s,”(2) said A V Cleaver. Lord Kings Norton also thought that there would be a manned mission to Mars in the same timeframe, remarking that: “We should be cautious indeed as prophets if we did not see a landing on Mars in the 1980s.”(2). Current plans from NASA to send a manned mission to Mars are scheduled for somewhat later than the speakers originally envisioned, with the earliest date in the 2030s.

To space for thrills?


The BAC ‘Mustard’ project proposed a recoverable space launching vehicle comprised of three stages two outer boosters which would detach and return to base and a third which would continue into orbit. (BAC)

Another speaker, Ronald Smelt, anticipated the rise the space tourism, although again his timescale was over optimistic. “Flight into space will become more commonplace,” he said. “Before the end of the century, it appears likely that space excursions for thrill of pleasure will begin.”(2) However, Freddie Page was accurate in predicting both the future of space exploration and the development of new launch systems. “There will be a great increase in the amount of scientific work carried out beyond the atmosphere and man will be exploiting the neighbouring parts of the solar system and exploring the more remote parts. All of this will demand more efficient space launching and transport systems. (1)”

The future role of Europe in space and the rise in the importance of China were also highlighted by A V Cleaver: “Europe may yet become a real contender for the Space Race. Of China’s position, however, there can be little doubt. By AD 2066, she may well be the most important of all.”(2)

The 1966 experts also foresaw the future importance of orbiting satellites. “Telecommunications will be dominated by satellites,”(1) wrote Freddie Page. A V Cleaver went further, predicting that: “Space stations will also provide the major means of long-distance telecommunications, control and navigation of most terrestrial transport vehicles.”(1) “Specialised satellites will be used increasingly as aids for navigation and traffic control for ships and aircraft and for the gathering, dissemination and traffic control for ships and aircraft”(2) - a vision that has since become reality with GPS and other satellite-based navigational systems.


The future of ATC? Cartoon illustration from the RAeS 1966 Garden Party brochure. (RAeS)

The luminaries of 1966 also surmised about the infrastructure that the airliners of the 21st century would have to operate in. “In 100 years, all air traffic control will be directed by a central World Computer Unit which will compute at any instant the optimum pattern for safety and economy by world airlines as a whole and will monitor all routes by en route instructions to pilots,” suggested Prof Roderick Collar RAeS President in 1963-64 and a leading academic in aeroelasticity at NPL and later at Bristol University. “Thus, in the integrated pattern, an engine failure over the Atlantic might result in an instruction to a pilot crossing the Tasman sea to change speed. But I don’t know if the pilots will be flying the aircraft or operating the computer!”(1)

Sir Alan Cobham - famed today for his pioneering work on popularising private flying and the development on in-flight fuelling systems was concerned that airports of the future might not be equipped with adequate land transport infrastructure: “The question of airport facilities must be studied urgently. It would be ridiculous to introduce ‘jumbo-jets’ and large ‘air buses’ into service, fill them with passengers and fly them far and wide; to give facilities whereby they land automatically, possibly in zero visibility; then unload the passengers on an airport, let them struggle through a congested terminal with inadequate space for departures and arrivals in the reception halls and finally leave them to crawl in buses or cars and perhaps come to a grinding halt on the crowded roads outside the airport.” (3)

D Kuchemann also realised that noise pollution might become a problem: “As air traffic builds up the noise aspects will vitally affect the choice of type of vehicle to be used.”(1)

The future of defence


Trident II missile launch. It was thought in 1966 that missiles would become the prime weapon on the 21st century. (MoD)

Turning his attention to the future of defence, Prof Legg was of the opinion that the military role of the UK would be replaced by a joint European defence force and that most important weapon of the future would be the missile. “Britain is likely to become part of a United States of Europe whose total defence would therefore be handled on a group basis … In 2016 the (British military) services will be much more, if not fully, integrated. Weapon development will be largely missiles launched from underwater bases either from underwater vehicles or underwater defence cities.”(3)

Manufacturing and systems

A 1960's proposal for composite materials could be used in future aero engines. (RollsRoyce)

However, when it came to looking at future trends in aircraft manufacturing and systems, the RAeS experts made a number of accurate predictions. What is even more remarkable is that some of the most (then) unlikely ideas they suggested are now becoming reality. Several experts highlighted the potential offered by the development of new materials, in particular composites. ‘Father of Concorde’ Morien Morgan, RAeS President 1967-68 and Chairman of the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee, wrote that: “Outstandingly important elements in giving impulse to this changing scene will be materials the composites in particular need watching and micro-miniaturisation.”(1) “Composite materials … particularly composites based on carbon fibres, are likely to provide the ultimate structural materials of the future,”agreed W H Molyneux. “Novel techniques of analysis will be developed and computer technology will grow to the point where the structure can be analysed in the intimate detail that will be necessary for those materials.” (2) A J Kennedy went further: “We should not the potentialities of new fabric forms of materials, for example, those woven from high temperature wires or from graphite.”(2)

Lord Kings Norton even came close to predicting both the introduction of preformed composite structures and 3D printing. “I have long been shocked by the production of high performance structural parts by machining away most of the material supplied. The correct evaluation of alternative processes and the development of potentially economic forming processes, is obviously a matter of great importance in the future.”(2)

Airborne computers


By 2016 an airborne computer will weigh less that 10lb and cost under £500. (RAeS)

The experts also anticipated the development of new computer and control systems into aircraft to aid pilots. Peter Hearne, RAeS President 1980-81 who ended up as Chairman of GEC Avionics, wrote that: “Small size digital computers will also be used in the control and organisation of such systems as communications, cabin conditioning etc. Most important they will certainly be used for engine control.”(3)

Future systems

Could aircraft cockpits of the future be fitted with electronic cockpit displays? (Elliott)

Other future systems which were predicted were:

Fly-by-wire - “With the advent of reliable multi-channel electronic control systems it becomes possible to consider the replacement of many of the mechanical control links which have become increasingly heavy, complex and demanding of maintenance in modern aircraft.”(3) (Peter Hearne)

Head-up displays - “Perhaps in the Second Century of the Royal Aeronautical Society, we will see synthetic three-dimensional holographic displays, projected and stablished in the line of forward vision.”(2) (G Melvill Jones)

Glass cockpits - “The other developments associated with computers will be the development of electronic displays with much greater flexibility or scene shifting capability than is possessed by existing mechanical instruments.”(3) (Peter Hearne)

TCAS - “Associated with this rapid growth in air traffic will be the urgent necessity for the development of a collision avoidance system and this should become available in an engineered form around 1985.”(2) (P A Hearne)

J T Stamper (RAeS President 1981-82) also predicted the rise of CAD and virtual engineering. “In one hundred years’ time I believe that drawing paper will have been superseded by the computer store as the basic clay moulded in the design process... Developments in holography will lead to the practical use of three-dimensional imagery in the design process.”(2) In the event, it didn’t take as long as 100 years for digital engineering to become reality (see Digital Cabins and virtual twins, AEROSPACE, November 2015, p22).

L G Dawson spoke at the Symposium saying: “In years to come, conventional fuels will no doubt be relatively expensive… The manufacture of liquid hydrogen near the airfield using solar power could well make it an economical necessity for future long-range aircraft.”(2). A number of hydrogen-powered aircraft have since been developed, including Boeing’s Fuel Cell Demonstrator and Phantom Eye UAV.

Mind control

Fifty years on from 1966, mind control for aircraft much closer to reality, including the research conducted by the EU ‘Brainflight’ project to control UAVs and aircraft.(Technical University of Munich) 

However, one of the most remarkable predictions was that future pilots might be able to fly aircraft using mind control, a vision that is now becoming reality. “Work in this new radiation spectra should also enable the development of new types of communication links between human beings directly or human beings and machines in an area which is now being defined as extrasensory of telepathy,” wrote Peter Hearne. “Work in this area should begin at approximately in the year 2000 and simple laboratory experiments demonstrating the ability of humans to control computers by thought processes should be achieved by 2020.” (2)

A central data-processing exchange?


Could we join all these together to make on big computer? (Cornell)

In addition to looking at the future of aviation, the experts of ’66, also considered how developments in communication technology might affect the industry. While no one quite predicted the development and nature of the Internet, a couple of writers came close. “Because of the new visual and computer links we anticipate, physical separation will be comparatively unimportant in the future,” said Joseph Black. “The university researcher will be at no disadvantage since the multi-access computer links, the information retrieval and knowledge links will make him independent of his own university’s resources.”(2) J V Connolly was also not far off the mark when he wrote: “Computers will be widely available and adequate installations linked to central data processing ‘exchanges’ will be in most people’s homes or offices. Pure information will be available on a vast range of factual matters and the use of a library will be a rare event.”(3)

Blue sky thinking

How it was thought aircraft technology might develop between 1968 and 2016. (RAeS)

Some predictions made in 1966 have not been realised or perhaps not yet. P A Hearne suggested that: “[Technological progress] should permit the realisation of a new high definition sensor about the turn of the century giving the equivalent of a direct vision viewing at close range from signals detected by a sensor head 50-100 miles distance.”(2) Hearne also speculated that: “It is possible that anti-gravitational machines could be demonstrated at laboratory levels by 2020.”(2) RAeS President 1966-67 A D Baxter thought that: “In 100 years new forms of aerospace power plant and energy conversion will be on the verge of realisation the remote supply of energy by laser beam or the tapping of the Earth’s radiation belts will be seriously considered, even anti-gravity devices may be demonstrated, noise problems will not exist.”(1)

In conclusion, while it is tempting with hindsight to smile at those predictions that did not come true, could any expert now in 2016 do any better? In the words of Morien Morgan: “Prophecy forward over just a decade is a perilous trade but to be asked to look forward 100 years is almost cruel.”(1)



1. RAeS Centenary Garden Party brochure 1966

2. The Skyward Urge Aviation 1866-2016 Centenary Symposium 15-16 July 1966

3. The Future of Aeronautics, Allen, J E and Bruce, J, RAeS, 1970

Bill Read
13 December 2016

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