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A 40,000-Foot Perspective

January 15, 2013  By Paul Dixon

Welcome to next year already. Y2K+13. Seems like not very long ago, I was one of those people preparing for the end of civilization as we know it.

Welcome to next year already. Y2K+13. Seems like not very long ago, I was one of those people preparing for the end of civilization as we know it. We did find some interesting little tidbits buried in legacy data programming, but luckily the things that failed were in standalone situations and had zero impact on the bigger picture.

The Y2K issue was a holdover from the early days of computing, when computer memory was incredibly expensive and it was a matter of economy to encode year information as two characters rather than four. What seemed like a good idea in 1960 was revealed to be a really bad idea as the 20th century drew to a close. Once again we found ourselves neck-deep in alligators, long past the point of forgetting what our original mission had been.

It’s part of the basic human condition that we set off down a path, think we’ve come to the end without realizing that we haven’t even reached the half-way mark and don’t seem to remember why we set out in the first place. A recent cover story in Maclean’s magazine was devoted to the return of the flying car. In the giddy days following the Second World War, a number of manufacturers set out to capture the market. One of them, Consolidated Vultee, builders of the B-24 and B-36, were promoting a flying car based on a Studebaker, a mind-boggling blend of design and technology. The crash of the prototype killed the project. Memories of my father’s 1949 Studebaker would suggest that operators would need to be IFR-rated due to the permanent cloud of blue smoke from all the oil it consumed.

The Macleans’s article notes that there were at least 300 flying car designs in the years before the Second World War, with the comment that people were trying to invent a flying car before there were even airports to fly from. But the author missed the point. Flying cars were not meant to exploit the few airfields that did exist at the time, but rather they were seen as a solution to a lack of passable roads outside the city limits in most of North America. What better way to commute from Orillia into downtown Toronto? The post-war economic boom killed the flying car, however. People moved out to the suburbs, the automobile was king, and roads, bridges and other infrastructure followed. One of the benefits of Eisenhower becoming president in the U.S. was the creation of the interstate super-highway system, which sprang from Ike’s appreciation of the German autobahns.


Vancouver’s main post office is slated to close in 2014, replaced by a complex currently under construction at YVR. The current building, conceived in the post-war infrastructure boom and built in the mid-1950s, had two technological advances that unwittingly linked the 19th and 21st centuries. The building was designed at a time when mail moved across the country on trains. A tunnel connected the building to the Canadian Pacific railway station, allowing the movement of mail by conveyor. Airlines took the mail away from the railroads a year before the building opened.  The tunnel was never used. Looking ahead, the post office was the first building in Vancouver with a rooftop helipad. Like the tunnel, the helipad was never used – so with no trains and no helicopters, the mail was moved by trucks.

The fact is, as a society we look for solutions to problems, forgetting that every solution creates a new set of problems requiring a new set of solutions. Here’s another momentous event that took place right after the war; the Leduc No. 1 hit on Feb. 13, 1947. I won’t say it changed our lives forever, because forever is a long, long time to think about, but it sure ranks up there. What does the future hold and how far down the road can we see?

Leduc No.1 was the right thing at the right time for a country coming out of the Great Depression and the Second World War. It fuelled an economic revolution, which has given us the world we live in today, but as our society has changed over time, the world we live in has changed as well and it is not necessarily moving in the same direction or at the same speed. When that first generation of computer programmers created a standard system of recording the year in date information as two digits, it never occurred to them what might happen at some point in the future when a computer was unable to progress past the last day of “99.” It’s not that they ignored the possibility, it’s that it was never considered. Which raises the question – what is it that we are missing in our future – that thing that is out there and staring at us from 40 years away?

As we turn the clock into a new year, as helicopter operators, it’s prudent to remember not only to look for solutions to the challenges of this year or even next, but also to focus on 40,000 feet – the philosophical changes that will shape our businesses for years to come.

Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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