I'm not sure who first came up with the term "spam can" to designate a basic, fixed-tricycle-gear, aluminum airplane. Spam itself originated in the late 1930s, and Hormel, the manufacturer of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous pork shoulder/ham product, actually started calling it "Spam" to make it sound jazzier. It needn't have bothered.
One of the defining characteristics of Spam, of course, aside from its less-than-mouth-watering taste, was its packaging. It was vacuum-packed in cans of aluminum so thin that the top could simply be peeled away. Which is undoubtedly the link. A spam can, whether a disposable ammunition box (Chrysler produced a bunch of ammo containers known as "spam cans" during World War II) or an inexpensive aluminum aircraft, came to mean any cheap, somewhat flimsy and mass-produced aluminum container.
Calling something a spam can, in other words, is not exactly a breathtaking compliment — something every single "spam can" airplane owner knows all too well.
New airplanes are admired for their pristine looks and advanced technology. It's cool to own a new airplane. It's also a status symbol, because to buy a new airplane, you have to have some serious cash in the bank. Same goes for a high-performance single, twin or other get-there-go-fast design.
Antique, classic and sport planes have their own panache. A tailwheel of any kind signifies someone willing to trade off ease of operation for excitement or nostalgic experience. An aerobatic plane is cool because it's a lot harder to fly (it's built to do anything but stay level and upright), and flying one entails more risk. An old classic is cool because it says that its owner has a bit of timeless poet in the soul.
Spam cans offer no such panache, status or coolness. A spam can speaks of a pilot who wants to be in the air but doesn't want to have to work overmuch at it — in the air or on the ground. Fixed gear. Single engine. Easy aluminum construction, well suited to the less expensive tiedowns outside. Tricycle gear to make every landing easier. A Piper Warrior or Grumman Cheetah is not, never has been and most likely never will be a status symbol. At least, not within the ranks of aviation.
I even wrote about the embarrassment of owning such an uncool airplane, back when I first bought the Cheetah some 12 years ago:
"It should be a simple enough question. I can see that reflected in the perplexed eyes of everyone who asks. And yet months after buying my new plane, I still find myself stumbling painfully over the answer. Time after time, the interchange is the same. 'So, you've bought an airplane!' some innocent bystander remarks. I nod proudly. Then comes the inevitable follow-up. 'What kind?'
"My eyes drop guiltily to the ground. I shuffle my feet and stuff my hands into my pockets, stumbling for explanation as I struggle to meet their gaze. 'Well, you see,' I begin, 'what I finally decided was that living here in the Los Angeles basin, it's really not a good putt-around place, you know, so what I really figured I needed, or what was most important … ' Thinking, perhaps, that I didn't understand the question, my confused listeners try again. 'Yes,' they interject, 'but what KIND of airplane did you buy?'
"There is no escape. With a guilt-ridden sigh, like a Catholic at confession, I own up to it. 'A Grumman Cheetah,' I say in a voice full of apology, half expecting a bolt of lightning to come and strike me down for my sin. Because for someone indoctrinated into the Society of True Believers of Old Tailwheel Flying Machines, I have done the unthinkable. I have committed the unpardonable heretical act, a crime worthy of excommunication or worse. I have bought the forbidden — a modern machine with a training wheel in front, with aluminum for wings, something 'anyone' could fly. I have bought … the proverbial spam can."
In the past 10 years, an additional criticism has been added to the pile. A spam can, brokers tell me with a shake of the head and a pitying sigh, does not have glass. To hear some of them talk about it, anyone who owns an airplane built between 1960 and 1999 might as well just relegate it to the junk pile.
"Nobody's buying anything that's not glass these days," one broker told me. "They just don't sell."
Terrific. I now own an airplane that's not only uncool but also, apparently, unmarketable.
It's not that I have any delusions of grandeur. I own a 33-year-old airplane. Which means that it has the same kind of troubles that a 33-year-old house has. Something is always in need of improvement or repair. And sometimes, that's frustrating.
A few weeks ago, I called my friend Marty and asked if he wanted to go flying. Marty lives up in California's Sierra Foothills. But he owns a 1965 Cherokee 180 (which makes my spam can look positively new!), so we made arrangements for him to fly down to Livermore, where I keep the Cheetah, and fly to lunch somewhere.