Generations of Aviation Relevance

By Scott Spangler on October 19th, 2015

NAHA-28On my inaugural visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, I expected nothing more than the opportunity to meet many of the airplanes I’ve read about in their tactile, three-dimensional magnificence. The museum, part of the National Aviation Heritage Area that encompasses Dayton, Ohio, and its surrounding communities, more than met my expectation. Unexpected was the epiphany that arose from an obscure airplane, a simple but vexing question, and the spirit of my father, a naval aviator who joined his World War II compatriots in 2008.

The Air Force Museum has divided its vast collection by conflict/era in four huge hangars: World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and the new hangar, which is open in the spring, which will display the collection’s experimental aircraft, such as the X-15. Walking in the World War II hangar with Paul Dye, editor of Kitplanes magazine, we came across the AT-9 and wondered who had given a Twin Beech an Art Deco makeover. Seeing the airplane in profile, I realized that I’d seen the airplane before, in two-dimensions. And thinking of the worn Aeronautics Aircraft Spotters Handbook, published by the National Aeronautics Council in 1943, resurrected my father’s spirit, for it was his NavCad book bag, and he used it to teach me to read words and airplanes.

NAHA-255Edited by Ensign L.C. Guthman, the handbook categorized the Allied and Axis aircraft of the era by number of engines, from six to gliders, and the position of their wings, high, mid-wing, and low. The AT-9, an advanced trainer, made by Curtiss-Wright, the nacelles of its two Lycoming R-680-9 radial engines extending beyond its Art Deco nose, is on page 134. Not far from what may well be the last tangible example of this little known airplane is the airplane on page 135, the Curtiss-Wright C-46 Commando.

As we wandered through the connecting hallway that led to the Cold War, Paul asked an often-posed question: Why has interest in the aircraft of World War II endured in their popularity compared to the veterans who flew during the conflicts waged during my lifetime, Korea and Vietnam? The kernel of one possible answer was planted when I noticed a heavily armed Predator drone flying above a heavily armed Skyraider that saw service in Southeast Asia.

NAHA-42Aviation relevance is directly connected, it seems to me, to the number of people involved in the conflict, and the nature of the conflict itself. Unlike the conflicts that followed it, World War II had clearly defied tactical, strategic, and political goals that the home front understood and supported through nationwide sacrifices. Moreover, the aircrews involved numbered in the millions. The B-17 had a crew of 10. Capable of carrying the same load of destruction, the Douglas Skyraider flown by the Air Force had a crew of two. The Predator also has a crew of two; while it carries less ordinance, it can remain on-station longer and its crew, situated a world away from the theater of battle, is not exposed to the same level of physical danger.

The generation of Vietnam is the offspring of those who flew in the global aerial battlefield of World War II, but our numbers were substantially smaller in comparison. When I went to Vietnam in 1975, my father was as old as I am now, and my son, who now serves with the Navy, is the age I was when I floated on and above the water off those troubled shores. With each conflict, aerial participation has become ever more exclusive. As a consequence, appreciation and abiding interest in the tools of aerial conflict, and its attending excitement and adventure, has waned.

The aircraft of World War II remain popular and interesting to succeeding generations because they are still accessible to a large number of people. As groups such as the CAF and various museums, not to mention individual owners of World War II aircraft, have proven, sustaining the operational lives of these veterans is within reach of everyday people. Such is not the case for the kerosene-powered aircraft that succeeded them.

And we must not discount the emotional and political payloads carried by each era’s aircraft. If professional football fans are any indication, the united effort of a team working toward a common goal in any endeavor has been and will be an overriding national passion. Individual effort, whether in sports, conflict, or aviation, warrants more exclusive interest that depends on first-hand experience of the individual or a family member no more than a generation or two removed. The interest in aviation of my son directly related to me and his grandfather, but the chances that my grandsons will pursue this interest in things that fly seems slight. And in time, the memories of those who gave these aircraft life will subside, and future generations of aviation relevance will relegate icons of aviation’s past to static lives in museums. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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One Response to “Generations of Aviation Relevance”

  1. Amanda Wright Lane Says:

    Scott,
    Your article resonated in my brain and my heart…there is an emotional attachment for our nation’s “flying machines” that transcends science and politics. Thanks for your thoughtful article. Amanda

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