"Giant Conquerors of Space and Time". The transportation connection to this statement is that this was the title of the Pennsylvania Railroad's 1931 calendar illustration. The airline link is that it depicts a Ford Tri-Motor flying overhead a steam-powered train, in honor of the partnership between the Pennsylvania and TAT-Maddux Air Lines (a predecessor of TWA) in the new rail-air transcontinental passenger service. The locomotive appears to be somewhat ahead of the aircraft, both literally and possibly, figuratively (after all, this was the railroad's marketing piece!). This condition of relative velocity will not last long, however.

To say that the railroad company was proud of its participation is an understatement, as noted on p. 90 of Dan Cupper's Crossroads of Commerce (Great Eastern Publishing, 1992), a book-length history of the PRR's calendar program:

"The Climax of transportation is reached in the famous trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the tri-motored planes of TAT-Maddux Air Lines," read the calendar's broadside. "They are the conquerors."

Back in the present, it's easy to recognize the immodest hyperbole in the statements above. Passenger trains now travel up to 135 mph routinely on portions of what was the Pennsylvania, a velocity that handily eclipses the Ford's maximum speed. And giant? In 1931, few, if any, could have imagined aircraft the size of the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747, much less their cruise speeds.

Of course, even the size of these two aircraft pales in comparison with the earthquake and Tsunami that struck in the area of Sendai, Japan on March 11. The latter moved at about the same speed as the two aircraft when in cruise, but with almost unimaginable mass and force, wreaking havoc on a wide area, including the Sendai airport.

Sendai's airport was not a major player on the world airline stage, although it did have service not only to points in Japan but also to other Asian cities. So, this initially appeared not to be of significant concern in terms of its impact on global airline operations, although the death and destruction at Sendai was tragic. In the aftermath of the quake and tsunami, however, nuclear power plants were damaged, which caused some carriers to modify and/or cancel service at Tokyo's airports, out of fear that wind-borne radiation could impact Japan's capital city.

While the direct physical consequences of March 11 either have abated, or will in the future, the aftermath in economic terms will be felt for a long time in the world's third largest economy, as well the economies of those who trade with Japan, which effectively constitutes the world. And all of this results from something that happened in the proverbial "twinkling of an eye", with no hint of its occurrence prior to the deadly earthquake. 

The airline industry is used to "conquering space and time." Flying once was restricted to what would now be termed day/VFR conditions. Night flying (more on this later) added considerably to the industry's capabilities, as did later advances such as 'instrument' flying, aircraft with greater performance, and advances in navigation techniques.

Still, there are conditions that are not likely to be overcome by human effort and ingenuity. While aircraft performance has improved vastly, it remains a good idea to avoid the microbursts found in strong thunderstorms, for example. And last summer, flight activity in Europe was severely disrupted by volcanic activity in Iceland, based on previous incidents involving loss of engine power in volcanic ash clouds elsewhere. 

Severe weather, droughts, volcanic eruptions, dust storms, floods, epidemics, and yes, earthquakes and tsunamis, are not likely to cease. And in most cases, while there need to be plans within both the airline industry and the wider economy to deal with these types of events, they will by necessity be reactive.

And finally, while it's difficult to anticipate natural disaster-type events outside of human control, technological progress is also quite capable of putting a damper on overly aggressive advertising. Even before the 1931 calendar took effect, Cupper's book reports that an all-air route, with an overnight stop in Kansas City, began in October, 1930. Not long after "In November 1932, aviation experience and technology had advanced to the point where nighttime commercial passenger flying became practical, and a 24-hour all-air journey was instituted."

So, while it's nice to make the world aware of progress, moderation is almost never a bad thing. This is particularly true in light of the fact that there are forces well beyond our ability to control them that may also, at random times, and without warning, play a significant role in human events, including air transportation. We can only hope to survive them and recover, as we currently hope that recovery in Japan from the events of March 11 will be as speedy as possible.