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Virgin Atlantic's GlobalFlyer: Flight to Nowhere
Published on Wednesday, March 9, 2005 by
Flight to Nowhere
by Scott Bontz

Machines that take to the air took with them my boyhood imagination.

I pieced together plastic models of fighters like the Spitfire, Mustang and Thunderchief. On thin, clear fishing line I posed them banked under my bedroom ceiling. And for sleek beauty and in-flight realism, I glued their landing gear shut.

So I appreciate how some people are enamored with a plane like the globe-circling GlobalFlyer. But I urge doing what it symbolically flew against and what the models of my fantasy couldnít: Come down to the earth.

My hometown, Salina, Kan., served as base for the first solo, unrefueled airplane flight around the world. This feat with the elegantly anorexic GlobalFlyer was hailed for its aeronautical efficiency and the glory of human flight.

But plant your feet and look beyond a bird cut so marginally that it waited weeks for conditions good enough to take off. See an I-in-the-sky stunt by a millionaire adventurer who said frankly it was for his ego. Recognize that his progress-touting bankroller is a businessman who enjoys publicity. And realize that the cost of flying in general -- not just for exotics like the GlobalFlyer -- appears headed beyond most of our means as the fuel for much of our way of life becomes increasingly scarce and expensive.

Airplanes rely on petroleum-based fuel, and the world is going to run down its supply of usable petroleum. Forecasters think oil production might start falling off as early as this decade.

Other sources might be tapped for engine fuel, but none approaches petroleumís bang for the buck, and gains in airliner efficiency have nearly leveled off.

So air travel will become increasingly costly, for many prohibitively so.

The GlobalFlyer canít even enter, let alone push, the envelope of fuel efficiency per passenger mile. A little Cessna and a huge Boeing are, respectively, five and 10 times better. They just canít do it without stopping.

So whatís wrong with stopping?

To everyone caught up by this exploit: Step out of it for some perspective.

See that with the decline of oil, weíll also lose the cheap source of much of our synthetic world -- plastics, heating oil, medicines, pesticides, paving materials, waxes, solvents, lubricants and other chemicals.

Look to those who must make the earth their home long after us. They will have to cope with our decisions.

And they will remember us. Will it be as those with the vision and guts to redeem themselves from a world-wrecking dependency on fossil fuel? Or as those who unforgivably kept their heads in the sand looking for oil?

Even if we choose not to believe the large majority of scientists who show human consumption of fossil fuel is warping the global climate further polluted by the GlobalFlyer -- 2,800 gallons of jet fuel in three days -- we should consider the rest of this legacy of living high on the energy hog.

From that vantage we should seek a way out. We should use our American ingenuity, not to fly from responsibility, but to return to living within the earthís limits.

After his many records with airplanes, airships, balloons and sailboats, GlobalFlyer pilot Steve Fossett could take on this new kind of challenge. It would be his biggest yet.

Only then would he take my imagination with him.

Scott Bontz ( wrote this for the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, Salina, Kan., where he's an editor for the instituteís publications.


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