Our contradictory spectacle

It was an epiphany. Not to the extent of Archimedes jumping from the tub and running through the streets naked. For one thing, I was having lunch, not a bath. For another, I was not naked at any point during this story. And as many will attest, my running days are far behind me.

Still, the idea popped into my head fully formed. It was complete and self-contained. It was this: We, the aviation community, are pioneers of an evolutionary step in human history that most of the populace isn’t ready for yet.

Yeah, I know. It sounds self-serving and conceited. But it’s true. And we owe this revelation to monster trucks, NASCAR, and the Colosseum in Rome.

You see, I was having lunch on a lazy Sunday afternoon with my wife. The place is called Fire. It’s a funky, odd eatery and bar in the center of downtown Winter Haven where reggae music plays at modest levels, establishing a cool that transcends temperature in the darkened confines of the main dining room. This is the kind of place where you can get a burger and a beer, or a perfectly seared Ahi tuna entree and a glass of wine, all while watching SportsCenter on the big screen over the bar.

On this particular day the choices on the three televisions were baseball (yawn), Nascar (ugh), or a monster truck event (yuck). Not being a sports fan, I would have been perfectly happy if the bartender  switched over to the food network, SciFi, and Bloomberg’s news feed. But I was out with my girl, who happens to love baseball. So I vegetated and waited for my burger to arrive from the kitchen.

To my surprise, the monster truck event began to catch my attention. The crowd packed into the indoor arena was massive. They transcended any assumptions of age or gender. As the monster trucks lumbered around the course, barely able to make even the widest turn without wobbling like a spring-loaded clown car, bouncing over obstacles, and careening nearly out of control into the barriers erected to protect the crowd — it hit me.

The crowd wasn’t watching the event as it played out in front of them. They were watching the big screen overhead. They were watching television. Thousands of them were doing exactly what I was doing, except that I didn’t have to buy a ticket, was enjoying far more comfortable surroundings, and benefited from a cold beer and a luscious burger on the table in front of me. I wasn’t inhaling carbon monoxide fumes of being elbowed in the ribs by the Gomer beside me, either.

The crowd sat quietly for the most part, faces turned upward toward the Jumbotron, until mayhem struck. Then they got excited. They stood and cheered. They waved their arms and celebrated the disaster.

If the monster trucks ran the course, bested each obstacle, and finished the race with a time and score, the audience more or less offered a polite golf clap and let it go at that. However, if the vehicle rolled over, spun a tire off a rim or, better yet, came down from a jump with such force the front end separated from the machine sending massive wheel assemblies skittering across the dirt floor — the crowd went wild — still watching the big screen overhead even as live humans struggled to maintain control of massive apparatus right in front of them.

That’s when my epiphany came to me, clear as a bell. Aviation is an evolutionary step forward in human history. And like most quantum leaps forward in technology, the bulk of the human population just isn’t ready for it.

Consider this: In aviation we are focused on safety above all else. Even apparent nut-jobs like Patty Wagstaff, Sean Tucker, and the venerable R.A. “Bob” Hoover have a plan. They’ve practiced their routine hundreds of times before they show it off in front of an audience. They know the configuration of their aircraft, they have target speeds, along with pitch and roll numbers for specific maneuvers. In short, they know exactly what they are doing and what the outcome of their control inputs will be. Anything short of perfection is unacceptable — and so we get to see what might otherwise be deemed impossible.

This in a world that is motivated to action by the phrase, “Hey y’all watch this.” Mix in a couple chilled alcoholic beverages, a high rate of speed, and possibly a flame or two and you’ve got something the public really wants to see. Yes, they want to see the crash.

We, on the other hand, want to avoid the crash at all cost. In fact we want to avoid the crash so much that if the conditions aren’t right, we’ll scrap the whole show in the interest of safety.

Do you think they ever cancel a monster truck competition entry because Cletus has a chest cold and took an unapproved decongestant before his heat?

In ancient times they sated the crowd with bloodshed. A hundred years ago folks turned out to see a hangin’. Today, they go to events where machines fly apart, drivers are torn from their rides, and there is at least some risk of a vehicle rocketing up into the stands and taking out a few spectators. Not us, of course, but somebody. That’s where the excitement is.

Aviation is boring by comparison. The audience comes for the crashes, the explosions, and the mayhem. All we’re offering is the almost unimaginable awesomeness of lifting hundreds of people into the air, whisking them across an ocean in air-conditioned comfort, and delivering them on time to the destination of their choice. What’s exciting about that?

Welcome to the evolution.


  1. jim Lawrence says

    Jamie, a really nicely written piece.as a longtime aviation writer myself I appreciated not only your observations but the lively, well crafted and colorful way you created your piece. Well done!

  2. Joseph says

    The other thing is when NASCAR takes out 20 cars at 160mph they don’t shut down the race, call in the NTSB and the DOT to investigate and then add the car wreck to the safety statistics for driving for that year. The media barely mentions it during the sports section on the nightly news, were as a airshow crash is covered for weeks it seems. Aviation is held to a higher standard (and it should be). Other pilots don’t like when I say this but you have to be a geek at some level to appreciate aviation. Aviation events are more akin to comic-con than to NASCAR. But instead of spending $5k on a costumes and novelties we buy avionics and charts. This is why I say we should advertise aviation at the mega “geek conventions” since many have disposable income and the aptitude and attention to learn (and appreciate) the difference between calibrated, indicated, true airspeed and true, magnetic heading.

  3. Greg W says

    To support your conclusion I have seen the crowd cheer a crash. The sad part for aviation was it happened at Oshkosh. The last Osh. I wen’t to was 2007 and two P-51s collided on the runway. The crowd gasped and then it was “wow, cool look at that!”. The crowd in general looked as tho the pilot of the P-51A would walk out of the fire and wave to the crowd!, not understanding (I hope) that this is not NASCAR and that the “driver” was dead. The response from crash/rescue was very slow as well, they came from the far end of the field. That is the difference between a “fly-in” crowd and an “airshow” crowd. One group understands, the other doesn’t care to learn a thing. They want the spectacle, they don’t want to see something where they “think” you may die, but rather the stunt where they “know” you will die then be surprised that you didn’t. I have not been back to Osh. since then, it is no longer our convention but just an airshow spectacle for the crowds and sales venue for the big producers and gadget buyers.

    • Tom says

      Amen to those comments. Moreover, we didn’t even get to burn our 3rd class medicals, didn’t get no-ethanol no-lead aviation fuel, and still don’t know where the money is going to come from to buy AD-“BS” for the instrument panel. Let’s just stay home next year until they can do something for us regular pilots that can no longer afford the $ 375 hamburger.

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