An electric vision of flying future
Published: 04 Mar 2016
After a service career spent with the US Navy, John Petersen is now working as a professional aviation futurist and is also chairman of the Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation, which is based in West Virginia.
The US Navy picked an aviation career for you?
I joined the Naval Reserve in 1962, while still in college studying for an electrical engineering degree, and went to Officer Candidate School in the summer.
Never having had any experience, or interest, in flying, I indicated that I wanted orders to the surface navy (destroyers, cruisers, auxiliary ships). Out of the blue, without the usual application process and aptitude and physical testing, I received orders to flight school in Pensacola, Florida. In 29 years of service in the Navy and Naval Reserve I have never met anyone who received orders to flight school without applying and testing first. My first squadron was based at NAS Alameda in the San Francisco bay area, from where I deployed on the USS Ranger to the Vietnam war.
I was then transferred to a squadron at NAS Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, from where we deployed on the USS Saratoga for a cruise to the Mediterranean. After leaving active duty, I joined the Naval Reserve and flew in a transport aircraft squadron out of NAS Glenview in the Chicago area, and also performed duty at a number of war colleges, at the National Security Council staff in the White House, as advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations and as advisor to the commander of naval forces in Desert Shield and advisor to Commander Seventh Fleet, until I retired from service in 2003.
Petersen served in a flight squadron on the USS Ranger in Vietnam
You built your own Lancair?
When they came out with the pressurised version of the Lancair IV in 1991, I bought the kit long before the advent of “fast-build” versions, and spent over 15 years building it in various locations in Illinois, Virginia and Florida. I sold the almostcompleted project and am now interested in building a Glasair Sportsman, which I could fly out of the grass strip that is located on the farm where we live in West Virginia.
You’ve helped the Linbergh Foundation change focus?
I became chairman after being on the board of directors for about nine years. The Lindbergh Foundation has always been about continuing the interest of Charles and Anne in balancing the environment and technology. For 35 years it gave small grants for research projects, but now it concentrates on aviationoriented projects that use technology to better the natural environment.
Its Air Shepherd programme, which is the foundation’s current focus, is the leading initiative in the world that is using drone aircraft with infrared cameras to fly at night in southern Africa, to counter poachers that have killed over 30,000 elephants and almost 1,500 rhinos per year over the last few years, a rate of slaughter that will make these animals extinct in the wild within a decade. Working closely with rangers on the ground, the Air Shepherd operations have completely stopped poaching in those places where they have been flown.
What is the main focus of your AOPA blog?
My day job is as a futurist. I’ve written three books on aspects of anticipating futures and apply this background to write an Opinion Leaders blog for AOPA on the future of aviation. I have given presentations about the future of aviation at gatherings including multiple times at AirVenture and NBAA and talks at Sun ‘n’ Fun, AOPA, Regional Aircraft Association and the aero clubs in Atlanta and Wichita.
And what is the future of aviation?
I think the future of aviation is electric. Technological advances, driven by trends in the automobile industry, are producing electric drive train capabilities that are showing up throughout general and commercial aviation.
Both Boeing and Airbus have electric airliners on the drawing boards. Furthermore, the exponential rate of breakthroughs suggests that extraordinary things, like levitation, could well be on the near horizon, changing the appearance and operation of future aircraft.