Launched on the same day…

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

Some of my era’s inspiration for strong participation in GA came from military aviation. Adding to the glow of “aviation as WWII hero” were the military’s well-publicized, science fiction-like leaps in post-war technology. Turning 62 this month (along with me) is a major milestone of that period: the first non-stop flight around the world.

Think first of Voyager and the Rutans? Their 1986 flight was the remarkable first circumnavigation without refueling. The first non-stop circumnavigation, in 1949, was early and dramatic proof of mid-air refueling — a key to U.S. global strategic deterrence.

Ever get one of those newspaper front pages from the day you were born? I did. On March 3, 1949, papers carried the story of the Lucky Lady II, a USAF B-50 that spanned the globe in 94 hours and four refuelings. B-50? That was a much-modified B-29 enabling the new Strategic Air Command to demonstrate early go-anywhere nuclear deterrence, even with propellers. The all-jet B-47 and, later, the B-52 soon became America’s truly real, and real-time, airborne deterrent.

It’s ancient history now. The B-50 was retired fast – well before 62! But for my age group, vast advances in speed, altitude and capability from the late 1940s into the 1960s were something to behold. Aircraft designs proliferated at a fever pace, often because two or three approaches were pursued simultaneously so that one might succeed. (For fun, research odd model numbers that never made it. Try easy ones first, like the Air Force F-88 and F-92, F-107 and F-108 or the B-45,-46, -48 and B-60.)

Rapid developments after World War II soon led to space flight, an even greater inspiration to fly. You felt you were part of it all, or could be. At least I did.

I took the trouble some years back to find the Lucky Lady II. She was out back of the Chino (California) Air Museum, tucked up against the building sans wings. The name was still clearly on the nose; I gave it a pat. (They tell me she’s now nearer the aircraft static display but still not prominent. Plans for restoration are not top priority.) I felt a kinship with that airplane for its remarkable day(s) in 1949.

And I feel privileged now to have lived and flown during the second half of “the century of flight.” Today, there’s immense distance between what most of us fly and aviation’s leading edge. Back in the 1950s or early 1960s, a Bonanza or Apache/Aztec twin at 150-160 knots was closer in speed and capability to the DC-3 local service airliner you’d fly on a regional business trip.

The military trained 500,000 Americans to fly during World War II, I’m told. Millions more got into it later through military flying clubs or just their early familiarity with air travel courtesy of Uncle Sam. (Most civilians then were still unaccustomed to flying. Average GIs were quickly acclimated courtesy of the Military Air Transport Service.)

Yes, turns out I was “launched” the day America learned of our nation’s ability to fly to anywhere, anytime. Later, I did my best to do the same.

© 2011 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *