The Aviation Roots of ‘Star Trek’

“Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry served in the Pacific theatre. Courtesy: Roddenberry Foundation

If you are a “Star Trek” fan, you probably remember where you were on September 28, 1987, when “Star Trek: The Next Generation” premiered. STNG, as it is known among the fans, was the second live-action series created by Gene Roddenberry.

Roddenberry was a pilot, and as such the “Star Trek” franchise is peppered with references to terrestrial aviation.

Here are 17 of our favorite connections:

1. Gene Roddenberry earned his wings in 1941 through the Civilian Pilot Training Program. In 1942, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. Roddenberry was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 394th Bomb Squadron, 5th Bombardment Group of the Thirteenth Air Force.

2. Roddenberry served in the Pacific theater, flying 89 combat missions as captain of a B17E named Yankee Doodle. Roddenberry survived two airplane crashes, and when he returned stateside, he became an aircraft accident investigator for the military. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal before being discharged from the AAC in 1945 as a captain.

3. After the war, Roddenberry spent four years as a pilot for Pan Am World Airways. He was deadheading on the Lockheed L-049 Constellation when there was an engine failure and subsequent fire. The aircraft crashed in the Syrian Desert with 36 people on board. Seven crew members and eight passengers were killed. Roddenberry, who was all of 25 years old at the time, was the ranking surviving flight officer. He took command and was credited with saving the lives of the remaining passengers and facilitating their rescue.

4. The bridge of Captain James T. Kirk’s first Enterprise NCC-1701 was inspired by a Lockheed design for a space station.

5. The triangular symbol that was the insignia for Kirk’s ship and later became the communicators for STNG and beyond is derived from the L/D max graph rotated 180 degrees.

6. In several episodes of “Star Trek: The Original Series” (STOS), Spock is seen using a mechanical E6-B flight computer. The Jeppesen CSG-1P Slide Graphic Computer first appears in “The Naked Time,” in which Spock uses it to calculate how much time is remaining before the crippled Enterprise will enter the planet’s atmosphere and burn up.

7. In the STOS episode “The Doomsday Machine,” the hostile space object dubbed “the planet killer” was actually an aviation windsock dipped in plaster.

8. The Federation starships all have position lights on the saucer section: green on right, red on left, and anti-collision beacons.

9. Roddenberry’s nickname was “The Great Bird of the Galaxy.”

10. “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (the movie with the whales) was dedicated to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger. On January 25, 1986, the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all on board. The principal shooting on the movie began one month after the Challenger disaster.

11. The ashes of Roddenberry and James Doohan, who played Montgomery Scott, the chief engineer aboard the Enterprise NCC-1701, were taken into space.

12. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, the half-Vulcan first officer, was a private pilot with an instrument rating. For a time, he owned a Piper Cherokee.

13. Actress Susan Oliver (stage name Charlotte Gercke), who played Vina, the love interest of Captain Christopher Pike in the STOS pilot episode “The Cage”—which was later to be retooled into “The Menagerie”—was an accomplished pilot. In the 1970s, she won the Powder Puff Derby air race. She was also the fourth woman to fly a single-engine aircraft solo across the Atlantic.

14. When the space shuttle Enterprise made its debut, rolling out of the factory in Palmdale, California, on Sept. 17, 1976, Roddenberry and most of the cast from STOS were in attendance. The shuttle Enterprise was designed as a proof of concept and used for atmospheric testing, therefore it did not have engines and never went into space. The name Enterprise was selected for the orbiter because fans of STOS launched a massive letter-writing campaign asking that the shuttle be named for the fictional starship. Roddenberry is said to have chosen the name Enterprise for the starship because it was the name of the most decorated U.S. Naval vessel from World War II.

15. Michael Dorn, who plays Worf, the first Klingon to serve in Starfleet in both STNG and “Deep Space 9,” is an accomplished pilot. Dorn used to own several aircraft including a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, a North American F-86 Sabre, an MU-2, a Sabreliner, and a Cessna Citation 501SP. Dorn also has the distinction of flying with both the Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds.

16. In 2015, astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti wore a Starfleet uniform from “Star Trek Voyager” and took a selfie aboard the International Space Station with the supply capsule Dragon outside the window. In the tweet that accompanied the photo, Cristoforetti stated: “‘There’s coffee in that nebula’...ehm, I mean in the #Dragon,” quoting Voyager Captain Janeway, who is known for her love of coffee and let her crew know that the energy derived from the nebula they encountered would be used to replicate her favorite beverage.

17. TMZ reported recently that William Shatner, the actor who is credited with first bringing the role of Captain Kirk to life in the “Star Trek” franchise, is being considered to go into space aboard the Blue Origin capsule.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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