The most important human factor in aviation is the pilot, and there has been considerable discussion in the aviation media about the decrease in the number of student pilots and the general lack of interest in aviation, especially among young people. Various factors have been discussed, including the increase in the cost of flying, the lack of new general aviation airplane designs and the added complexity of the airspace. While these may have some impact, I don’t think they address the real problem.
To me the cause runs much deeper — aviation has almost completely lost its aura of adventure. A lasting impression is often formed during a person’s first encounter with something new, and the first experience of the modern airline traveler is very different from what a person experienced when traveling by air 50 years ago. My own first encounter with aviation sealed my fate and left no doubt about what my future vocation would be. I had always had an interest in airplanes and loved to go up to the observation deck at the airport to watch my father’s airliner arrive at the end of a business trip. Finally at the age of 7 I had an opportunity to fly with my grandfather to Washington, D.C.
During the weeks leading up to the flight I counted off each day that stood between me and my first flight in an airplane. Finally the day arrived and we were walking across the ramp. The DC-6 stood before us, a magnificent example of man’s mastery of the air. The wind in which we would be flying tousled our hair and the clouds floated overhead, now lofty and distant but soon to be our intimate acquaintance. Only a few feet away the first officer probed the dark recesses of the wheel well with his flashlight, assuring that everything was as it should be. A giant red fire extinguisher standing by the engine was testimony to the danger of what we were about to undertake.
We ascended the metal staircase, my excitement growing with each step. As soon as we entered the doorway I was surrounded by the distinctive smell of leather. To my left the open cockpit door permitted a quick view of panels filled with controls, gauges and switches. Shortly after we sat down the door was closed. Deep within the bowels of the airplane I could hear pumps activating, pressurizing the hydraulic fluid and bringing fuel to the engines. Then one of the propellers began to rotate. Around and around it went, as if the engine were not sure it wanted to work that day. All the lights dimmed from the effort of turning the giant blades. Finally, with several coughs and a cloud of smoke it roared to life. This was repeated until all four engines were idling peacefully.
On takeoff there was no question of the power it took to lift such a beast into the air. As the pilot advanced the throttles, a deepening roar filled the cabin. Vibration built until it was impossible to talk or even hear your own voice. As it reached its peak, it developed a rhythm of its own, a steady beat that was almost hypnotic. Then gradually the earth began to fall away and the horizon receded as the neighborhoods surrounding the airport slid under the wing. Once we were safely in the air, the roar of the engines subsided and the urgency of the vibration’s beat relaxed to a slow, comforting ebb and flow.
Even after we leveled off at our cruising altitude, we were low enough that I could clearly see the cities, rivers and lakes as they passed beneath us. I never tired of watching the earth as we flew but was frustrated by the limited view available out the window. Then my grandfather took me to visit the cockpit. As I walked through the door I found the whole earth stretched out before me. It was like going from a small television set to a Cinerama movie screen. I was standing there taking it all in when the captain got out of his seat and motioned for me to sit in it. For a few minutes I knew what it was like to sit at the controls, the master of a complex machine as well as the fate of all the people on board. I was hooked!