Aviation was once a term that excited notions of romance and adventure. It conjured images of open cockpit biplanes and grizzled aviators bedecked in goggles, helmet, and a long flowing silk scarf that kept oil from the sputtering engine off of your face and out of your lungs. That noble image only grew when Charles Lindbergh ended the reign of ocean liners when he flew a Wright Whirlwind engine with a Ryan NYP behind it across the Atlantic Ocean. War came a decade later and aviation’s swaggering image reached its zenith as the greatest cadre of pilots that will ever grace the history books returned home with their stories.
Today aviation is more commonly associated with discomfort and boredom. The cockpit of a modern airliner is locked off during flight so that all we experience is a disembodied tube crammed with bodies, peanuts, and plastic cups. Aviation has come to be associated with aisle and window more than stick and rudder.
So what happened to the romance and adventure of aviation? Absolutely nothing. It is still there, alive and well, on the outskirts of town at the dusty little airports where the little airplanes fly. Good pilots gather around bad coffee in almost every town in the United States to fly a dizzying variety of aircraft that carry only a few people and are all pushed by propellers.
I used to own and fly one of the smallest and simplest of those little airplanes: a 1947 Aeronca 11CC Super Chief. The “Super” tag was in reference to its large, 85 horsepower engine, an upgrade from the original 65-horse Continental. It had no GPS, no radios, no starter, no battery. Flight instruments were limited to a magnetic compass and an altimeter. It did have a handbrake – a unique upgrade – that allowed me to get out of the airplane and swing the propeller around until the engine started without wondering how I might get back into the cockpit before the airplane rolled off down the runway. Swinging the propeller around was the only way to start it, and was nearly impossible when the engine was hot. With the engine humming the light little bird (it only weighed 725 pounds) would bounce off the ground in a meager 300 feet. It was very slow for an airplane – only 80 mph or so – but could land anywhere and only cost about $15 an hour in gas to fly. In fact, for most trips, it was cheaper than driving.
I remember a particular summer day skimming just 500 feet above the ground with the windows open. I could see each aspect of the landscape distinctly, and I could smell the newly-mown hay of Oregon’s Willamette Valley as it mixed with the salt air from the coast. And I could see the contrails of jet airliners far overhead and thought about their passengers, cloistered and disgruntled, far removed from aviation.