In many countries it?s rare nowadays to meet someone who has never flown.
But while hundreds of millions of people fly regularly on commercial aircraft, air transport is just one of aviation?s many facets.
Some aviation activities, such as hang-gliding, helicopter sightseeing and skydiving, are largely recreational. Others?including tasks as diverse as pipeline patrolling, banner towing and international medical evacuation?support a wide variety of commercial, research, life-saving and law enforcement functions.
One sheriff in the United States uses his own ultralight aircraft to look for marijuana fields, said Cass Howell, chairman of the Department of Aeronautical Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Aviation has transformed and itself has been transformed by the daily lives of people throughout the world. Sao Paulo, Brazil has more than 600 helipads because its wealthiest residents travel in helicopters from their walled residential compounds to avoid being kidnapped on the roads, noted Howell.
Throughout the developed world people rely on reports from news helicopters and other aircraft to provide them with up-to-the-minute information on traffic jams, breaking stories such as O.J. Simpson?s notorious ?slow speed chase??which was followed by 26 news helicopters?and alerts regarding severe weather.
The U.S. Air Force Reserve Command?s ?Hurricane Hunters,? flying WC-130J Hercules aircraft, are the best-known severe-weather chasers. During each year?s Atlantic hurricane season, they fly into every tropical depression, storm and hurricane that approaches the U.S. coast.
Many other aircraft perform vital weather research and storm-tracking activities. Few involved will forget how news helicopters tracked an enormous F5 twister as it made its way towards Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999, providing thousands with vital advance warning of the deadly menace they faced.
U.S. Air Force pilots have flown F-4 Phantoms and other fighters designed to withstand high g-force loads right into thunderstorms to conduct research into turbulence within storm clouds and to learn more about the effects of lightning strikes on aircraft. All upper atmosphere research, such as radiation collection from near-Earth space, requires aircraft.
Research aircraft also include NASA?s famous ?Vomit Comet?, a KC-135 that flies in parabolic arcs to give astronauts experience of working in weightless conditions. Nowadays, students and their teachers get to fly in the aircraft too.
Industry insiders use the term ?general aviation? (GA) to describe aviation activities other than airline and military flying. One significant GA trend is the development of very light jets for private use and for point-to-point commercial flights by air taxi operators, said Howell.
Another, ?really blossoming,? is production of light sport aircraft weighing 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds) or less for recreational flyers.
?There are probably dozens of new manufacturers? that make light sport aircraft, said Howell. Small Rotax two-stroke or four-stroke engines are ?very popular? choices to power these aircraft and many models are equipped with ?simple but sophisticated? instruments such as GPS receivers.
Tracing their ancestry to ultralight aircraft, light sport aircraft have developed as a class since the FAA authorized a standard method several years ago for certifying such aircraft and their pilots.
?The goal was to get more people into flying,? said Howell. ?Rules and certification had been getting more onerous and the goal was to reverse that trend.?
While recreational flying is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people in North America, thousands or even millions rely on aviation in running their businesses.
One important but often overlooked area of aviation is agricultural flying. Many North American farmers rely on specialized ?ag? aircraft to sow, fertilize and spray insecticides on their fields.
It?s fascinating to watch a single-seat, highly maneuverable ag aircraft zoom low across a field, pull up sharply and then return for another pass as it flies a precision pattern that ensures the aircraft sprays every square inch of the field.
Today, farmers can employ visible and thermal aerial photography to build mosaic images that show the different soils and soil conditions in every part of a field, said Howell.
Employing a GPS-driven applicator, a farmer can use detailed aerial photography to fertilize every part of a large field optimally. Different fertilizer blends can be applied to areas as small as 40 square meters.
?If you can increase the growth yield of a field by 10 percent over hundreds of acres, that makes a remarkable difference,? said Howell.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture?s Agricultural Research Service realized it made sense to install thermal cameras and sensors in agricultural aircraft themselves to collect data as they flew precision-spraying patterns.
Experiments in the Mississippi Delta have proved that ag aircraft flying thermal imaging missions can identify active fire-ant mounds for biological control purposes. And ag aircraft taking low-altitude visible photographs were able to detect harmful algae in catfish production ponds.
But, in Howell?s opinion, aviation?s ability to transport just about anything from anywhere in the world to anywhere else within 24 hours?particularly perishables?has been its biggest unsung contribution to society.