A Brief History of the World (of Aviation)

6 min read

The Beginning

October 12, 1492.  July 4, 1776.  July 20, 1969.  Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America, Thomas Jefferson’s announcement of the Declaration of Independence and Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the lunar surface are very important dates in the history of the United States we learned in school.  But this month marks another important date of discovery.

December 17, 1903. At 10:35, on that historic day, Orville Wright released the restraining wire securing the Wright Flyer to the rail on which it was mounted in the 25+ MPH wind.  Lying on his belly, using one lever to control pitch, another attached to the 12 HP engine’s throttle, and swinging his hips to “warp” the wings and move the rudder, the Flyer flew 120 feet before hitting the sand near Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. There have been other claims of earlier powered flight, but it was the Wright Flyer, not Samuel Langley’s catapulted launches from boats, nor Gustav Whitehead’s alleged flights of “Number 21,” that provided the ancestral DNA for the airplanes we currently fly.

Aircraft Evolution

Granted, the airplanes most of us fly look only vaguely similar to the Wright Flyer – they have wings, propeller(s) and engine(s).  World War I saw more robust aircraft conquer the skies and spawned the legends of the Lafayette Escadrille and the Red Baron (which was made even more famous in 1966 with the Royal Guardsmen’s rock hit “Snoopy vs the Red Baron). After the war and during prohibition, enterprising aviators used airplanes like the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” to satisfy America’s thirst for Cuban rum.

Others contracted with the government to more quickly carry the mail, while some carved out a living performing stunts and selling rides during the “Barnstormer” era of the 1920s.  Charles Lindberg, who famously flew his “Sprit of St Louis” monoplane solo across the Atlantic, began his aviation career as a barnstormer.  Early airlines sprang up to haul people and cargo across the continent.

Using trains during the night and Ford Tri-Motors during the day, folks could travel from New York City to Los Angeles in as little as 3 days. In 1934, Elrey Jeppesen began selling his own hand drawn book of aeronautical charts for $10 (valued at $190 in today’s dollars showing the value of Foreflight’s $100 base subscription).  Another World War called for the development of larger and faster airplanes.  The Douglas DC-3 could haul three tons of people or cargo over 200 MPH. The P-51 Mustang fighter could climb above 40,000 feet and fly faster than 400 MPH.

From Fabric to Aluminum to Composites

After World War II, many military trained pilots returned home to a prosperous America and were soon buying and flying airplanes bearing the names of  William Piper, Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman.   Businessmen learned they could use airplanes to fly directly (and discretely) enhancing their margins.  On the televisions, now in everyone’s living room by the 1950s, Arizona rancher Sky King and his niece Penny saved the free world every week in his Cessna 310 he called “The Songbird.”

As the 1960s approached, general aviation aircraft grew and more aircraft were capable of flight in instrument conditions.  Slowly the drone of overhead propellers became supplemented by the whoosh of jet engines as aircraft like the Lockheed JetStar and LearJet 23 became part of the general aviation fleet.  It was a time when the capabilities of general aviation aircraft were outpacing the abilities of many of the pilots controlling them.  In 1960, Hal Shevers, a young flight instructor working at Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport, began to revolutionize private flight by making the tools needed for the constantly evolving aircraft and airspace available to pilots flying from that historic airport.

The Sporty’s Era

In 1960, Hal sourced some Realtone transistor radios featuring AM, FM and the frequencies used for aviation communications.  He sold these to fellow pilots at Lunken’s restaurant from the trunk of his 1959 Studebaker Lark automobile.  A year later, he rented space in the terminal building to start selling and shipping pilot supplies marking the beginning of Sporty’s Pilot Shop.  Sporty’s spearheaded many innovations, both in pilot education and the GA cockpit.  Hal took flight education on the road with three-day ground schools to help fledgling instrument pilots pass their written tests. He pushed the adoption of aircraft headsets making crucial radio transmissions more understandable.  With his finger on the pulse of pilots, Hal developed many of the products he sold.  Some, like the HERE bottle, were practical. Note: HERE was an acronym for the Human Element Range Extender.  Others, like the famous FAA Mission Statement shirt (We’re not happy, until you’re not happy) were more whimsical.

After outgrowing available space at Lunken, Sporty’s bought a parcel of land at the new Clermont County airport just east of Cincinnati.  The new Sporty’s offered more room but also allowed area pilots to literally taxi up to the front door to purchase supplies.  By the 1980s, Sporty’s continued to pioneer the cockpit offering the added safety of portable hand-held radios. Sporty’s started its own flight school, both as a community resource, but also to demonstrate the effectiveness of pilot courses being developed.

By 1990, Sporty’s had once again outgrown its facility and a new campus was constructed across the now famous runway 4-22. The new building allowed for the consolidation of the Pilot Shop, course development, flight school, FBO and other Sporty’s branded enterprises under one roof. Proximity provided an unprecedented synergy to understand the needs of pilots and the development of the new tools and technologies needed for an increasingly complicated airspace.

As the new millennium started, Sporty’s Learn to Fly course was awarded Flying Magazine’s prestigious product of the year. The switch was made from clunky video tapes to DVDs providing instant access to any of the content without having to fast forward and rewind. As technology improved, the courses were shifted to an online streaming format which allows constant updating of content consistently putting the latest information in the hands of the student.  The portability of online courses provided the opportunity for Sporty’s Foundation to provide every EAA Young Eagle pilot the award winning course free of charge.

This writer believes that GPS (along with the nose wheel) has had the most profound impact on aviation safety in my lifetime.  In 2011, Sporty’s was instrumental in the development of the Stratus.  A portable GPS receiver that could also use the new ADS-B technology deployed by the FAA to display weather, in addition to GPS position, on a pilot’s iPad.  Since then, the technology has improved to provide reliable in-cockpit traffic data as well.

Sporty’s Founder Hal Shevers beside his iconic (and still flying) 1963 Aztec.

When Sporty’s started in 1961, it had been just 58 years since that 40 yard flight south of Kitty Hawk.  In the next 58 years, Sporty’s has grown from the trunk of a 1959 Studebaker to the world’s leader in pilot training, supplies and innovation.  What’s next?  There are a few new innovations developing in Sporty’s “Skunk Works.”   Some will work, others will be locked permanently away in the closet of “Bad Ideas.” Sporty’s Pilot Shop has served as the innovative “tip of the spear” for fully one-half of the history of powered aviation.  Judging from the continued interest in flight education, cockpit supplies, and safety, the future looks bright.