As an SF writer and reader I’m naturally well-disposed towards the idea of alien craft. I’d like to think that some UFO stories may have a basis in fact, though I’m very sceptical: most of them, I’m sure, are either hoaxes or genuine mistakes. For those which aren’t, there’s another explanation which is just as thought-provoking: that some UFO sightings are actually sightings of advanced prototypes of human origin.
The test flights of the B-2 Stealth bomber prototype were probably the cause of a flurry of sightings in the 1980s of a huge black boomerang-shaped UFO. People sighting it described its shape accurately but said it was much larger and faster than the real thing. Was that just natural adrenalin-fuelled exaggeration, or is there a bigger, faster B-2? Either way, people designed and built it, which is almost as interesting as aliens – and much more interesting than weather balloons or lenticular clouds.
There’s another plane which, like the B-2, looks like no other flying machine: the SR-71 Blackbird. It can fly at speeds and heights which make it practically a spaceship, and yet it’s now an old design – over fifty years old. It still looks as far in advance of current planes as it originally looked in the early 1960s, and yet it was retired because there’s something which outperforms it. Its replacement, codenamed Aurora, is in turn the subject of many rumours and UFO sightings. It’s very difficult to imagine what something designed and built fifty years after the Blackbird – which itself looked fifty years ahead of its time - can do, but it must be quite diverting.
And I haven’t yet mentioned any really modern planes, or drones. That, especially the growth of drones, leads somewhere else entirely.
The Air Show at Biggin Hill in Kent is one of the world’s biggest. I live nearby and I go most years. I remember a few years ago seeing the Eurofighter prototype (now in service as the Typhoon) demonstrating its computer-controlled (fly-by-wire) abilities. At times it was almost flying sideways, and changing direction almost at right-angles. America has several advanced planes of at least equal capability. I thought, then, that this must be the last generation of manned high-performance planes, because no humans (and probably only a few aliens) could survive the G-forces generated by their performance.
Which is where drones will come in. Without a resident human, they don’t have to be as big and their speed and manoeuvring capabilities can be even more extreme. It makes perfect sense, too, to avoid risking an expensively-trained pilot in actual combat when he or she can pilot it remotely.
I wrote “he or she” because I tried to avoid the male pronoun; and drones, among all the other less savoury things they do, might help gender equality. It used to be said that women are less likely to pilot the highest-performing aircraft for the same reason that they’re less likely to be Formula 1 drivers – not because their abilities are any less but because they’re less physically resistant to G-forces. I’m merely reporting the view, not endorsing it (so please don’t shoot the messenger) but whether it was ever true or not, it will be irrelevant with the advent of more remotely-piloted drones.
But it doesn’t end there.
In the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich on the Thames (also not far from where I live) there’s a robot device with impressive-looking grapples and lasers and pincers and other attachments which is used for underwater repairs to oil-rigs. On the face of it, nothing unusual: the obvious kind of vehicle for remotely-controlled operation. Except that it isn’t remotely-controlled any more. It’s completely autonomous and self-directing. It’s been programmed with all the accumulated experience of years of remotely-controlled repair operations, and now it knows what to look for and what to do when it finds it, and is left to itself. An ideal employee, unsalaried and untiring and uncomplaining, provided it doesn’t read I, Robot and start getting antsy.
The next generation of drones (in fact, some prototypes already flying) will have a similar but vastly more advanced self-programming and self-directing capacity. They’ll go out and decide themselves how to conduct offensive missions. Skynet has almost arrived.
The old SF “sense of wonder” often expressed itself in phrases like “the future is already here.” But the future isn’t only what is being developed, but how fast it’s developing: exponentially. Not only is the future here, it’s come and gone. The future’s future is here now.
From all of the above, you’ll have gathered that I’m far more interested in military aviation than civil aviation. Not that I’m particularly warlike, but the designs of military planes are quite beautiful and ingenious if you forget what they’re there to do. Military aircraft designs are by definition cutting-edge.
And civil aircraft designs are boring. They have to be, because they carry civilians. The designs have to be conventional and tried and tested. Everything is too litigious and risk-averse for the sudden advent of cutting-edge designs in civil aviation. But it’s a shame that cutting-edge designs aren’t at least being tested now, because they could produce some social and environmental gains. Blended-wing designs (rather than the current cigar-case-with-wings-attached shape) would provide vastly improved interior space and lift, so the same number of passengers could be moved by fewer planes using less fuel. Short/vertical takeoff and landing would dispense with runways almost entirely, so airports would no longer have to be huge neighbourhood-eating monsters. (Of course, modern high-speed trains could do the same, but that’s fortunately outside the scope of this already overlong post.)
I was going to go on (and on, and on) from here to talk about spaceships and military hardware in SF, but I want to leave a space at the end to talk about a favourite old plane of mine, so I’ll skip over this section very briefly. I haven’t mentioned my novel FAITH since my first “Introductions” post on January 3, when it was published. There are a lot of spaceships in FAITH, two in particular which are the main opponents in the confrontation which takes up most of the book. I wanted them to have abilities as advanced (and strange) as the book’s far-future setting allowed. There were plenty of spectacular sources of inspiration -Iain M Banks, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien. And Douglas Adams, whose Vogon spaceship hung in the air in exactly the way a brick didn’t. But they all had a huge scale to them. I wanted the Charles Manson and its opponent, Faith, to be on a more imaginable scale, even if they did unimaginable things.
So, this last bit is pure self-indulgence, because I want to mention my favourite plane, and what made it extraordinary. It’s a plane from World War Two, the De Havilland Mosquito. Its design was as advanced, as far ahead of anything else, in 1940 as the Blackbird was in 1960 or the Aurora is now. Why it was so advanced is that it was made out of plywood.
At least, the airframe was made out of plywood rather than metal. But not ordinary plywood. The Mosquito’s particular plywood was laminated to give enormous strength and rigidity and lightness. (Plywood, Jim, but not as we know it.) The Mosquito was a medium-sized plane, with two Spitfire engines but weighing less than two Spitfires, so that for years it was officially the world’s fastest plane even though it was originally designed as a bomber rather than a fighter. In fact, it became one of the first multi-role combat planes. Britain built over seven thousand of them, and there were fighter and reconnaisance and ground-attack variations. Because most of it was wood and not metal, it helped the war effort. And, most divertingly, if a Mosquito came back with a damaged wing or tailplane, the Royal Air Force could get a local carpenter or cabinet-maker or coffin-maker to build a new bit and glue it back on. A wonderful plane, and also a beautiful and very ingenious one.