Most of you who read this column remember The Jet Age. Unless you were living under a rock, you will recall the futuristic 1950s and 1960s along with the roar of jet planes and older propeller-driven pistonliners.
My earliest memories of planes were in Arlington, Virginia just north of Washington National Airport (I am a native Washingtonian who refuses to call it “Reagan” National) at the cusp of the 1960s. There was always the nostalgic roar of piston-powered Convairs, Connies, Martins, and Douglas airliners overhead. A big thrill for me and a lot of kids in those days was a casual trip to the airport for a few hours of plane watching. Though some would consider it boring by today’s standards, it was rewarding for kids back in the day. It allowed us to burn off energy and work up an appetite for the airport snack bar or a trip to a hamburger stand afterward.
My aunt would take us out to Friendship International Airport (now Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International) outside of Baltimore, which had what seemed a mile-long observation deck where you could hang out and watch planes for 10-cents a head for hours on end. It was a great entertainment value. This beat the pants off any video game a kid can immerse themselves into today. Planes would take off and we always wondered where they were going. They’d also arrive leaving us wondering where they’d been. Passengers deplaned from these glistening airframes dressed up in suits, ties and dresses. That’s just the way it was at the time because, despite jet travel, flight was still a relatively new phenomenon considering Orville and Wilbur took to the skies a half-century earlier.
When jets arrived long about 1959, plane watching became an entirely different dynamic. For one thing, jets didn’t have propellers, which made it challenging to understand how a plane flew when you couldn’t see any visible means of propulsion. Jets made a tremendous amount of noise and smoke when they left – especially in a water/ethanol-injected takeoff. It was a smoky thundering roar you could hear for miles around.
My dad explained to me that in order to make a lot of power, jets had to make a lot of noise. That was his reasoning. Explain that to airport neighbors and environmentalists at the time when conversation in a backyard could not be had at peak departure and arrival times. Whenever I see a new high-tech Boeing 787 or Airbus A350 takeoff today void of noise and smoke, I think of that statement from 60 years ago.
We’ve come a long way.
Going to the airport when I was a kid was a great pastime. It got kids out of the house and into the sunshine where they could learn something new in the process. The airport fueled my passion for aviation, which remains strong a half century later. Flying commercially back in the day was different than it is today. Passengers board airliners today like they’re getting on a bus. They don’t even pay attention to the flying experience, which remains remarkable to me even today. They don laptop computers and personal tablets, turn on their favorite TV show, close the window shade, and zone out without even thinking about where they are—traveling eight miles in a minute six miles above the earth.
The way people dress today for travel on an aircraft is remarkable too. They look like they’re on the way to a racing event or a barn raising. This attitude began with young baby boomers during the hippy era when nonconformists boarded aircraft in sandals, torn up jeans, and tie-dyed tee shirts.
The way we fly hasn’t been the same since.
Although flying commercially has become routine for a lot of people, it will never be routine for me. To feel a jetliner accelerate down a runway and feel it go into the sky draws raw emotion. To me, flying remains a miracle of physics where lift defies gravity and thrust keeps you in the sky. I can hop on a jet, strap in, and be 3,000 miles away in a matter of 4-5 hours. How can anyone actually take that for granted? I never have. And, consider this. You can board a Boeing 777 in Los Angeles and be in Sydney, Australia in 15 hours.
The late United Airlines Captain, Denny Fitch, who entered the cockpit of a very sick DC-10 (United Flight 232 at Sioux City, Iowa) with a blown engine and no hydraulics to help save lives, said that for him it was a very religious experience to take a plane into the air. Those were the words of a truly passionate aviator and humanitarian who understood the amazing element of flight. He’d flown thousands of hours and millions of miles, yet he never lost his fascination with flight.
Fitch, who was a passenger in First Class, raced to the cockpit, grabbed the jump seat between Captain Al Haynes and First Officer Bill Records and managed the power of the DC-10’s remaining two engines, which enabled them to at least maintain some control of the aircraft. They crash landed at Sioux City on a closed runway. Of the 296 souls on board, 112 died. Had it not been for Fitch, all 296 would have perished.
Plane watching isn’t what it used to be. For reasons of security, airports don’t have the viewing locations they once did in the United States. Observation decks are gone and have been since the early 1980s. The British never allow terrorism to deter their plane watching. They still line up along the fences on step ladders for a closer look, acting on their steamy passion for a pastime that seems to have been lost here in the States.