The disruptive ideas defining the future of flight

From the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 to the vertical take-off “air taxis” showcased at this year’s CES, the story of aviation is a story of invention. Some of those developments have sent ripples throughout the entire industry. Take the retractable landing gear, first seen on the A-1 Triad seaplane in 1911 and still commonplace today. Or look at the jet engine, which debuted in the world of commercial air travel on the 1952 de Havilland Comet and transformed how we work and play. Other technologies, however, have played a subtler but no less vital role. Consider, for instance, the wristwatch.

Watches were embraced by pilots for calculating speed, distance, fuel – or simply telling the time – while at the controls. One brand that has become especially synonymous with flight is Swiss luxury watchmaker Breitling. When Léon Breitling established the Breitling factory at Saint-Imier in 1884, he chose to focus on chronographs: technical devices for professionals who needed to record time, rather than merely keep track of it. As these migrated from pocket to wrist, the company introduced its own innovations, turning the heads of flight’s pioneers. Over the decades that followed, Breitling’s creative streak did not let up. From 1952’s Navitimer (essentially an analogue flight computer for the wrist) to 1995’s Emergency (with its distress beacon), it continued to bring leading-edge tools into the cockpit.

So, what will the future hold? Naturally, Breitling is seeking out the change-makers propelling air travel towards new horizons. Most recently it has assembled its Aviation Pioneers Squad, an elite group hailing from three different disciplines of flight. There’s Scott Kelly, who holds the record for longest single period of time in space by a Nasa astronaut. There’s Rocío González Torres, the Spanish fighter pilot inspiring the women aviators of tomorrow. And there’s Luke Bannister, a leading light in the emerging sport of drone racing.

They join forces with Breitling at an apposite moment. The company has redesigned one of its most highly regarded watches to serve the next generation of aviators: the Avenger. This collection, first launched in 2001, pulls against the throwback, vintage codes prevalent among pilots’ watches. Instead, it nods to the future with strong angles, lightweight materials – and shock-proof, tough-as-nails durability. Breitling intends the reimagined pieces to be fit for purpose whether at the controls of a supersonic airliner, piloting a drone or at the forefront of any of these other disruptive trends…

Air taxis

Motoring giants are partnering with aerospace firms in the race to dominate the emerging “air taxi” market, which analysts predict will be worth up to $2.9 trillion by 2040. But these “vertical take-off and landing vehicles”, as the industry has termed them, won’t look like flying cars. Instead, they will resemble giant multi-rotor drones flown by specialist pilots and, crucially for our planet, the engines will be electric. One manufacturer plans to start flight testing later this year with a view to beginning commercial operations as early as 2023.

Space hotels

A wave of entrepreneurs are setting up space hotel businesses – and they’re serious ventures. One, for instance, comes courtesy of a former International Space Station manager, who has already secured a contract with Nasa to provide a commercial module for the ISS. The idea raises a multitude of questions, including whether there are any health risks associated with spending a period of time off-planet. That’s where American former astronaut Scott Kelly comes in. Having spent 520 days staring down at Earth from the ISS, the Breitling Aviation Pioneers Squad member is working with Nasa to understand how space changes the human body.

Point-to-point transit

It was way back in 1962 when Lt. Commander Scott Carpenter wore a modified Breitling Navitimer for his trip to Earth orbit, bestowing upon it the accolade of being the first Swiss chronograph in space. Almost six decades on, the paradigm of space flight is much as it was – but we’re hitting an inflection point. A number of private space companies, for instance, are discussing “point to point” travel. This translates as a sub-orbital spaceflight from one Earth location to another, rendering routes such as New York to Shanghai a mere 40 minutes long. If safety obstacles can be overcome, analysts predict this market will be worth more than $20 billion annually.

Electric planes

As the climate emergency becomes increasingly pressing, the age of the electric aircraft is beginning to dawn. In December, for instance, a commercial aeroplane took off from Vancouver for a 15-minute flight powered entirely by batteries – a world first – while another manufacturer claims that an American regional airline has placed a “double digit order” for its all-electric passenger plane.

This revolution may have benefits beyond the environment: it could cause a boom in airlines offering smaller planes that can circumvent the inconvenient “hub and spoke” model prevalent in the industry today.

The future is female

Aviation has a poor track record on gender diversity. That’s slowly beginning to change – the number of female FAA student pilot certificate holders is now twice what it was a decade ago – and women such as Rocío González Torres have become important role models. Torres finished at the top of her class in pilot training and also at fighter academy; from there she became the first Spanish woman to log 1,000 hours in an F-18 fighter jet. As the Breitling Squad member puts it: “I hope that girls and young women will be inspired and encouraged to follow their dreams and take unexplored paths.”

Airships, redux

Lighter-than-air flight is currently reserved for hobbyists or adventurers – people such as Bertrand Piccard. In 1999, travelling in the Breitling Orbiter 3, he became the first person to balloon all the way around the world non-stop. In the future, however, this kind of flying could become more commonplace. A new generation of safer airships is emerging: a Paris startup is building a 150m-long model for heavy lifting in remote environments, backed by the governments of France, China and Quebec; the world’s largest defence contractor has designed an airship that they hope to assemble in California; and a British company is building a hybrid-electric airship that it plans to deliver by 2025 ahead of taking customers on a luxury “cruise” to the North Pole.

Children of Concorde

Aviation is of the few industries where there has been a notable regression: with the death of Concorde we no longer have a supersonic passenger carrier. But a number of startups want to change that, most notably an American outfit that has raised $141m to develop a 55-passenger supersonic airliner – and to do so in a way that is “supportive of the UN’s existing goal of carbon-neutral growth in aviation”. The one-third demonstrator model is expected to be flight-tested this year, and two airline operators have already placed 30 pre-orders for the real thing.

Ultra long-haul design

Aircraft design is a function of necessity. Take the de Havilland Mosquito. When the RAF needed a “fast bomber” they found ways to construct this plane primarily from wood in order to keep the weight down – an achievement honoured in Breitling’s Aviator 8 B01 Chronograph 43 Mosquito watch. Right now, however, it’s aircraft interiors on the drawing board. Ultra long-haul has emerged as a major talking point in the aviation world, after successful trials of direct flights between countries such as Australia and the UK. Now, airline operators are rushing to make that bearable with cabins featuring innovations such as social spaces.

Drone domination

Drones are emerging everywhere, from heavy industry to parcel delivery – and also in entertainment. Radio-controlled quadcopters are bringing together the worlds of sport and aviation like never before, as drone racing becomes big business, with prize money reaching the hundreds of thousands and pilots gaining serious followings. One is Breitling Squad member Luke Bannister, a three-time world champion with XBlades Racing.


The future is about the convergence of technologies, and the AI megatrend will certainly make itself felt in aviation. That will translate into a greater number of autonomous vehicles in the sky – not only traditional aircraft such as freight planes, but also new typologies such as air taxis. Indeed, a poll last year of 22,000 people showed that 70 per cent would be willing to travel in an autonomous aircraft. It’s not game over for aviators, though. Companies will likely want a safety pilot in the cockpit to take over if any problems arise. After all, the human brain is still the most powerful computer in the world. For now.

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