Flying the Friendly Skies? Don’t forget the petrochemicals!

Fuels |  3 min. read

So you missed National Aviation Month? (It was November.) Not to worry, we’ve got your back – with some airborne trivia, some places to visit (you can make December your own National Aviation Month) and a little car/plane talk.

You know that the Wright Brothers were first into the air in 1903 – but just a decade later, $5 would have made you the first passenger on a regularly scheduled flight. In fact, you would have been the only passenger on the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, because there wasn’t room for another one. You’d have had to be quick though, because at one passenger per flight, the Airboat Line was not a commercial success, and after three months, it was grounded, permanently.

So what does your car have in common with a 787?

More than you might think. For starters, what makes the 787 (Boeing’s “Dreamliner”) strong and lighter-weight, and makes it a lot more fuel-efficient – are some of the same composite (think carbon fiber) materials that are doing the same thing in today’s cars. At 50 percent composite, the 787 is well ahead of most cars (closer to 10 percent), but “as above, so below”: so look for more and more plastics and composite materials on the road soon.

There must be something about a goose. In the Twenties, it was the “Tin Goose” – aka, the Ford Tri-Motor. It could fly on two engines if one went down – a comfort to passengers apparently, since 100 airlines flew the Tin Goose. Then in the Forties, it was the turn of the “Spruce Goose”. It WAS built almost entirely of wood, and was the largest wooden airplane ever built (its claim to fame) – though the wood was primarily birch, not spruce (maybe the “Birch Lurch” just didn’t sound positive enough). And it only flew once, for about a minute.

Now let’s take a look under the hood.  Your car’s engine, and those jet engines?  They run on the same basic fuel – fuel made from petroleum.  Since a 787’s engines can hit 12,000 rpm (check your dashboard for the comparison), it’s not surprising that jet fuel is refined a bit differently from what’s in the pump at your local station – but gasoline, diesel, jet fuel – all come from the same place, a barrel of oil.

The first instrument-only flight was in – 1929.  To make sure there would be no peeking, the pilot wrapped his cockpit in canvas so he could he only see the instrument panel in front of him (that panel included a speedometer, altimeter, stopwatch, gyroscope, turn-and-bank indicator and a landing beam system).  Oh, and if you know your WWII history, you might recognize that pilot’s name – James Doolittle.  Doolittle was confident he could do it without looking, but the Army Air Corps wasn’t so sure – so they insisted on a second pilot, in a second, open, cockpit – with a second set of controls, just in case.  “Just in case” never happened though, Doolittle flew 15 miles, made a couple of 180-degree turns, and made a perfect instrument landing.

But fuel isn’t the only petroleum connection between the 787 and your ride.  Both feature engine oil, grease and other lubricants made from petroleum – and often by the same companies (Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, Shell) that make what you use in your car.  And those lubricants do the same thing in your engine that they do at 30,000 feet up – fight friction and keep moving parts moving smoothly.

And, for your DIY National Aviation Month?  There are great aviation museums all over the country.  The mothership, would be the National Air and Space Museum, part of the Smithsonian in Washington DC.  You can start at the beginning there, because they’ve got that 1903 Wright Brothers plane (and because it’s the Smithsonian, the museum is free!).

If you’re more of a military aviation type, you might want to set a course for Dayton, Ohio and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.   Which, after you’ve poked around the planes…

…gives you the chance to take the sky yourself, sort of, in their (very cool) flight simulators.

And, because who wouldn’t want to see an “aircraft boneyard”, there’s the Pima Air & Space Museum, in Tucson, Arizona.  It’s got the usual airplanes in hangars, but they’ve also got this:

…which you can tour round.

If that’s still not enough, there are plenty of best aviation museum lists around – like this one, from TravelPulse (yes, the Spruce Goose is on that list).