In a closet at my grandfather’s house, there is a toolbox. It’s a long, narrow rectangular thing, not at all like a toolbox you might find in the local home improvement store today. It’s made of wood with strong, steel hinges and an equally robust hasp, all of which have been worn by time.
My grandfather used the tools in that box to do simple repairs around his home. The crosscut saw trimmed boards used on the dock. The hammer drove nails into those boards. The level was used to make sure everything was aligned as it should be before final assembly.
Those tools still work and they’re still in use today. My grandfather once held them in his hands. Before that his father earned his living with them. They’re old and well used, but they still function as they were intended to.
My father uses them from time to time, as have I. They’re family history. Little treasures of a time long past. But they still function as they were intended to. They have the advantage of being basic tools. A hammer is a hammer, after all. They’re timeless.
My grandfather taught me how to use those tools, often making the comment, “Pick the right tool for the right job, son.” My father did the same.
And in my efforts to be a decent dad, I’ve handed down these lessons to my son and daughters. You’ve probably done something similar.
My granddad was born in 1898. A native Floridian who lived in the Tampa Bay area, he was a teenager when the first scheduled airline service lifted off to haul passengers across the bay. The route ran from St. Petersburg to Tampa. The flight took minutes. Traveling from St. Pete to Tampa by land took several hours.
The 20th Century brought real progress to these parts, and the airplane was a big part of those changes, which were to continue throughout the century.
His son, my father, grew up to fly F-86s for the Air Force and Boeing 747s for Pan American. He came a long way from the horse and the steam-powered train of my granddad’s day.
The technology of the aviation industry has changed over the years. Radically so. The aircraft my dad flew had little resemblance to the flimsy, underpowered Benoist my granddad saw skimming the waves.
Sure, the wings are tail bore some similarities, but engines and instrumentation were transformed into something virtually unimaginable in the early days of flight.
Not only were passengers able to enjoy a shirtsleeve environment with dinner service and a movie while traversing the globe from five miles above its surface, the pilots they flew behind were able to determine exact courses using inertial navigation systems. The days of navigating solely by looking out the window were over, as was the inconvenience of passengers getting wet or muddy as they boarded or de-planed at either end of their journey.
The tools in my granddad’s toolbox are of no use to me when I open up a computer to work on its innards, or rewire a ceiling fan in my home. They were designed and manufactured in a simpler time, when neither computers or electric ceiling fans existed.
If I adhere to the advice I got as a boy, picking the right tool for the right task requires me to dig through my own toolbox, where a whole new collection of newfangled tools resides.
Similarly, there are tools I can use in the cockpit that didn’t exist in my granddad’s day or in my dad’s prime. Even the old man’s 747, the pinnacle of human achievement in transportation at the time, didn’t have anything as nifty as the iPad to work with.
Just last week I flew a humble little Cessna 150 with an iPad mounted to the yoke, and I couldn’t help but be entertained by the realization that I had better instrumentation than dad’s Boeing ever did. It came in a significantly less expensive, lighter, and more resilient package, too.
Our industry is changing. Yet, at the same time it is staying the same.
Through exceptions and exemptions the FAA has given us a gift of sorts. We can choose the tool we want for the task we wish to take on. We can jump into a whiz-bang speed machine, depart Class B airspace with our eye on Class A, and make use of all the modern bells and whistles the best engineers in the world can come up with. Or, we can climb into a tube and rag classic, depart a non-towered grass strip, en route to nowhere in particular, and enjoy our flight without even touching so much as a push-to-talk switch. No transponder, no radio, no nuthin’. We can just fly.
Perhaps that’s the magic of this particular moment. As technology has advanced and made transcontinental and transoceanic flight a common occurrence, we have maintained our ability to buzz around in brilliant VFR, focusing exclusively on the stick and rudder, without the first thought about any navigational aid more complex than the windscreen in front of us. Or we can take the iPad along and have outstanding navigational tools at our fingertips.
It’s up to each of us individually. Fly the flight you’re dreaming of. With few exceptions, we can pretty much still conduct the flight we want, in the way we want.
That’s pretty amazing. More than a century after the first powered flight, with all the advances we’ve seen and been the grateful recipients of, we can still fly low and slow enjoying the view, if that’s our wont.
May it always be so.