There was a time not so long ago when aviation was cool. It was hip. It was a celebrity in its own right.
Being photographed next to an airplane was a dream come true. Being one of the lucky few who got to actually fly from here to there, faster than any train or car could transport you, was treat that would be told and retold at water-coolers and cocktail parties and pretty much anywhere else people gathered. If you actually knew how to fly you were a virtual demi-god, celebrated by friends and neighbors. You were feted by family. Aviation was king.
It ain’t that way no more.
For those of us who are old enough to remember the U.S. space program, the point is clear. Not the space program of recent years. What we see now is a thin, barely perceptible shadow of what used to be our space program.
President Kennedy stood up straight and tall, announcing to the world that the United States of America would send a man to the moon, and return him to the earth, alive, by the end of the decade. Consider the context of that statement. He made it in 1961 only 20 days after Al Shepard became the first American in space. Not in orbit, in space. Shepard’s brief ballistic foray into space had taken all of 15 minutes. Straight up, then straight down. Based on that minor success the President of the United States came out in public, to a joint session of Congress, and announced the unthinkable, the unimaginable. The United States would commit itself to doing something that was absolutely impossible, and we’d do it on a tight time table.
We hadn’t orbited the earth yet. Nobody had docked in space. We didn’t even know if that was possible. The engines, accessories, computer systems, and spacecraft needed to land on the moon hadn’t been invented yet.
The first astronauts were celebrities. We knew their names. The next nine were known as well. They were all pilots. The cool factor aviation experienced as a result of the space race was undeniable. Everyone who could manage to muscle a Piper Cub or an Aeronca Champ into the air was suddenly imbued with the same ultra-cool swagger the astronauts enjoyed. Aviation was awesome, and anyone involved in aviation was just about as cool as could be.
I remember all this vividly. Those were my good old days, growing up in East Hartford, Connecticut. Just across town was the Pratt & Whitney facility that had hosted Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart in an earlier era. That factory produced thousands of round engines that powered warplanes that flew over Europe and the Pacific a generation earlier. When I was a kid they were pumping out JT8Ds that would hang on B-727s and DC-9s.
At my house there was a framed certificate hanging on the wall in our tool room. It proclaimed my dad to be a member of the Mach Buster’s Club. As a young, bold, college educated F-86 pilot, my old man climbed to altitude over the Arizona desert, nosed over, powered up, and waited for his diminutive fighter to plunge through the sound barrier. His mach meter jumped and he became one of the coolest guys on the planet. A member of what was then a very small club.
By the time we lived in Connecticut the big man had left fighters behind, trading them for a Boeing 707 with a big blue Pan Am ball painted on the tail. That alone was enough to draw newspapermen to our door to inquire about the adventure, the excitement, the almost unimaginable awesomeness of flying here and there, laying over in exotic locations like Rome, and Paris, and Tokyo.
I was in the seventh grade when Dick Nixon went to China. Although we’d known about it for a while at my house, it was something of a secret that my dad was flying one of the airplanes in the entourage headed to the far east. He piloted an airplane carrying the press. On the day the president’s party left for China, my dad’s picture was in the local newspaper. A teacher who was apparently under the impression I was a little dimmer than a refrigerator bulb stopped me in the hall that day to ask, “Do you know where your father is today?”
It seems he thought he had greater insight into my family’s travels than I did, because he’d read the paper that day. But he also thought it was pretty cool that he was talking to a kid who was connected by blood to one of the most amazing geopolitical stories of the decade.
Yeah, aviation was cool. It was respected. It was amazing and daunting and attractive and maybe a little scary. But it had something special about it that we’ve lost. Maybe we lost our way when President Kennedy’s vision was replaced by the desire to take political advantage rather than accept the risks of advancing a people and their technology. Perhaps aviation became too darned safe and predictable to hold the public’s admiration.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if general aviation could lead the way back? If aviation gained its rightful place in the public eye through a branch of aviation that wasn’t dedicated to destruction, or protection, or on-time passenger service, that would be ideal.
Because it’s general aviation that can still welcome kids onto the field, and create family friendly events that allow people who have never taken the controls of an aircraft to do so. To experience the thrill, the challenge, and the unfettered freedom of flight first-hand is priceless. Only GA can do that.
If aviation is to get its mojo back, it’s in our hands. It’s up to us. To you. To me. We sent men to the moon nine times. We can do this.