Can Collective Effervescence Save Aviation?

By Scott Spangler on February 24th, 2014

If curiosity got you past the headline, stick with me for a few more words for an idea that might help save general aviation. If you’ve attended EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, even for a day, most likely its passionate enthusiasm dispersed a year’s worth of bad vibes about aviation’s future possibilities.

AirVenture has been my annual aeronautical antidepressant for the past 35 years. Over that time I and many others have tried unsuccessfully to explain why. I’ve finally found the answer in a National Geographic story, Karma of the Crowd,  about the world’s largest religious festival. For the millions who gather in India at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, psychologists attribute the mental boost the to “collective effervescence.”

Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist, coined the term in the 19th century, said National G. In the future, around the time of Star Wars, people might call it the Force. In the current epoch of technology, I’d call it crowd-sourced and shared behavioral synergy. Regardless the term, researchers studying its emotional and spiritual benefits say it is more effective and long lasting than prescription antidepressants. And the only source seems to be a crowd united for a common purpose.

For those who’ve attended AirVenture, the religious festival held at Kumbh Mela, India, should sound familiar. For eight weeks, pilgrims create an instant megacity. In 2013, said the author, Laura Spinney, an estimated 70 million pilgrims arrived over 56 days. Every day, 7 million lined up to bathe in the Ganges. There are no conflicts, no cutting in line. The author, Laura Spinney, quotes a policeman, who said, “Each one, on his own, wouldn’t be able to do it. They give each other strength.”

Most of the research on collective effervescence has focused on health (probably because those who bathe in the toxic Ganges water don’t get sick), but there are those studying its psychological aspects. The article introduced me to several of them. Stephen Reicher, at the University of St. Andrews, said… “crowds are critical to society. They help form our sense of who we are, they help form our relations to others, they even help determine our physical well-being.”

A colleague, psychologist Mark Levine at Exeter University, said, “Belonging to the crowd can change the way you see the world. it can alter your perception.” Yes, he was talking about research gathered at the religious gathering in India, but isn’t AirVenture—or your local fly-in or air show—a “religious” gathering for the aviation faithful? What better way to introduce a friend or acquaintance to the spirit of flight? (Hmm, seems to me I’ve heard that phrase before.)

Finally, it seems that the crowd-sourced synergy doesn’t need physical proximity to sustain it. Reicher said a shared identity (like that of EAA’s annual WomenVenture group photo above) is what differentiates a beneficially effervescent crowd from an everyday clutter of too many humans in one place. What matters most, it seems, is a metaphysical shift in pronouns, from “I” to “we.” And that’s just as true for the future of aviation as it is of almost every other aspect of our lives. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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9 Responses to “Can Collective Effervescence Save Aviation?”

  1. Phillip Hurst Says:

    Aside from having the best headline we’ve read in a long time, this article is right on the mark. It also helps makes the point for our vision for a leading media programming service around which flight and space enthusiasts can coalesce.

  2. Jacob A. Paquette Says:

    This is one of the reasons why airshows are so important. It seems lately that airshows, and air races have been getting a bad rap in the press, and because of military cuts there are fewer open houses & military air shows every year.
    These events are where people can get exposed to real, live airplanes for cheap, but most importantly realize that aviation is a community, a very strong and determined one at that. Experiences like talking to private airplane owners about their airplanes, or or talking to veterans about their flying experiences while standing next to (or shuffling around inside) vintage aircraft are experiences that have pulled a lot of people in. Going to an airshow as a kid has launched me onto a path that will lead to an aviation career; beyond that I’m determined to get my PPL so that I can truly be a part of the community…
    Which comes full circle to the troubles in the GA community today – a general lack of outreach. I don’t know the scope of it, and I definitely can’t prescribe any kind of solution to it, but the problem with events like Oshkosh is that unless you’re already into aviation, you most likely won’t plan a cross-country trip to go.

  3. Jim Klick Says:

    Another aspect of having had the “Oshkosh Experience” that is noticeable to me
    Is when I see someone at our local airport pick up a piece of paper or plastic cup and carry it to a trash bin, I know that he has probably been there.

  4. Captain William G. Miller Says:

    I find it mind boggling that people are still trying to figure out what is ailing general aviation,when it is so obviously the immorally high cost of av-gas. If people cant afford to put $6 a gallon gas in their planes and they cant, then general will not grow and prosper. Its just an economic fact. Not flight instruction, airshows, pancake breakfasts, or even Air Venture. Yup it will instill interest, but at the present cost of gas it will go nowhere. Everything that uses gas is way down: boating, driving, and flying. When we can again get gas for a reasonable price there will be growth. The experiment at Redwing aviation in San Marcos, Tex this summer proved this when they sold avgas for a buck a gallon and sold 90,000 gallons in 2 weeks instead of 2,000 a month which is their norm. This and this alone is what its about.

  5. Ric Lee Says:

    So Scott,

    You’ve been attending Oshkosh for 35 years now. What has happened to the pilot population during that time period?

    My wife and I have been attending for the past 18 years. We enjoy it but I do not see the pilot numbers trending upwards because of it. At Oshkosh we are merely preaching to the choir and their families.

    So this tells me that we need a different approach to growing the pilot ranks other than
    a large yearly airshow. What that is exactly,I’m still searching for an answer.

    Not trying to be negative here, just calling it as I see it.

  6. Scott Spangler Says:

    Ric, over the past 35 years the total pilot population has declined steadily, but the pilots attending Oshkosh has remained fairly steady because the event recharges their aviation interest annually.

    The collective effervescence of events like AirVenture is two fold: it sustains the passion of those already involved and fans the passion of newcomers.

    Honestly, I highly doubt that the pilot population will ever regain the numbers of 30 years ago because flight is not longer the mass market adventure it once was. That makes events like AirVenture even more important because it slows attrition and welcomes those diehard few who can’t live without flying.

  7. Bobby Todd Says:

    Your blog entry mirrors a column authored by Chairman Jack Pelton, published in a recent edition of Sport Aviation magazine. Unfortunately, you are both wrong: when it comes to the formidable and daunting task of saving general aviation, Oshkosh ain’t gonna do it, effervescence or no. Ric Lee makes an important point that should be carefully considered and heeded when he likens AirVenture to “preaching to the choir.” Like religious pilgrimages, the crowds that attend Oshkosh are largely and primarily constituted of the already converted–aviation insiders who are, have been, or will be actively involved in aviation–and their families. Based solely on my own observations, I would guess that most of the aviation outsiders are locals who live within a 300-mile radius; who know of AirVenture from local media coverage and/or regional reputation and who attend mostly out of curiosity to see what all the fuss is about. That’s not enough.

    IF GA is to be saved, it is necessary to recruit new enthusiasts from the vast numbers of individuals who have limited or no first-hand experience with GA–those who, when you say “Oshkosh,” think you’re talking about cute little overalls for toddlers (or a small town in southwest Nebraska). Of these uninitiated, can you imagine a father and mother in San Diego loading the kids and the dog into the Grand Caravan and making the 2000-mile drive to Oshkosh Wisconsin just to see that “big airplane show they got up there?”

    The greatest number of potential new aviation converts are our neighbors, busy with careers, businesses, families, and other obligations, who just might be able to make time for a day trip of 2hrs or less to attend an airshow or museum. They are not going to Oshkosh. Therefore it is not AirVenture but Young Eagles that, along with local and regional airshows and events, represents GA’s salvation. Like politics, all effervescence is local.

  8. Phillip Hurst Says:

    I just thought I’d point out there’s an almost identically-themed thread going on over at the GA News site: http://generalaviationnews.com/2014/02/24/i-found-the-next-generation/

    Bobby echoes my contention that GA needs to cast a much wider net to get the ‘recruits’. GA even knows this. I’ve been talking to the orgs for several years, trying to get their support for a 24/7 aviation/space-themed TV channel for a broad-based audience. They all say yes, we need to ‘turn the speakers out’, and stop ‘preaching to the choir’ or ‘talking to ourselves’ But year after year this same discussion keeps repeating itself, bringing to mind the old quip about the ‘definition of insanity’.

  9. Glen Says:

    I couldn’t agree I have been to Oshkosh twice and had the great pleasure to meet you twice Rob. Last time I stayed at camp bacon never been to such a happy place thousands of people getting on so well no crime,no arguments just people having such a brilliant time people from all over the world . Having else in common but a love of aviation. Mecca for Avgeeks and long may it last

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