In some ways, the early 21st century is beginning to mimic the early 20th century in terms of aviation pioneering and experimentation.

Those breathtaking years of the early 20th century saw ingenuity, dedication and a willingness to take risks by the Wright brothers, Louis Blériot, Tony Jannus and many others, leading to manned powered flight and ultimately the global commercial air transport system we have today. Fast forward to 2015, and there are many modern pioneers pushing to shape the future of commercial air transport so that it further extends global connectivity and improves the onboard experience, while ensuring long-term sustainability.

Aircraft technology pursuits and experimental flights are focused on three core areas: biofuels, solar power and all-electric power. There is also, of course, Virgin Galactic, the private endeavor to create the first commercial spaceline.

The Chinese took an early lead in pursuing electric aircraft. And in July, two tiny planes crossed that sliver of water known as the English Channel. Test pilot Didier Esteyne flew an Airbus E-Fan technology demonstrator, just one day after another pilot, Hugues Duwal, flew a small, electric-powered aircraft over the Channel. The Alpha Electro aircraft, developed and built by Slovenian company Pipistrel, therefore became the first electric-powered aircraft to cross the Channel, stealing that title from Airbus. But the Alpha was launched using a conventionally powered aircraft—hence the Airbus press release wording that the E-Fan was “the world’s first all-electric two engine aircraft taking off by its own power.”

Regardless of the details, both aircraft have blazed a trail for the future of aviation and Airbus has indicated that it sees the E-Fan as a first step towards developing an all-electric 100-seat airliner. NASA, meanwhile, is working towards a concept for an electric nine-seat commuter plane. 

Yet another pioneering aircraft of the 21st century is being repaired in Hawaii for the next stage of its epic round-the-world, solar-powered flight. Solar Impulse plans to resume its journey in 2016.

The designers, engineers and pilots of all these aircraft share the spirit of the aviation pioneers who helped bring us from the Wright Flyer to the Boeing 777 in less than 100 years. They also share the disappointments and setbacks, as well as the risks that can be as devastating today as they were a century ago.

But also similarly, the potential opportunities for future commercial air transport validate the setbacks and risks.

And it’s important that individual entrepreneurs and small companies are allowed to contribute their work and ingenuity alongside the projects of large companies, agencies and coalitions.  

Getting aviation from here to the 22nd century will require the talents, resources and, frankly, the courage of many. Just as in the days of Orville and Wilbur.