Following last weekends debut of Planes and my conversation with some kids who had just seen it, I was vicariously imagining what it would take to inspire them to become pilots by remembering what inspired me. This isnt difficult, because I can pin it down to about the year, if not the day. It wasnt a movie, or books or tales told by my World War II-bomber-navigator uncle, but an airplane. A real one.
I was five or six and my mother drove us to Amarillo Airport-English Field-in a two-door, chrome-green 1953 Oldsmobile to pick up my dad, who was returning from a business trip. In those days-it seems like a different eon-we didnt have to put up with the airside security bulls*&t we suffer today. When you met arriving airplanes, you walked out to the ramp fence, with its open gate, and the airplanes taxied right up close enough to feel and smell. No one yelled at you if you walked through the gate, especially if you were six years old.
For me, the memory remains vivid, although I could be mistaken on the airplane. I recall it being a DC-3 whose skin was so brightly polished that the taxiway stripes and concrete seams reflected off its belly. The engine nacelles were streaked with oil and when it shutdown, I got a whiff of leaded exhaust. (Not wimpy 100LL either, but the good green stuff…100/130. Probably tanked my IQ 10 points right on the spot, which explains why I became a journalist instead of surgeon.)
When the engines farted to a stop, the pilot opened his window and placed a little Texas flag in the mount airplanes had in those days. He waved at me and I was instantly enthralled. Given the Texas flag, I think the line must have been Trans-Texas Airways. They also flew Convair 240s, so its possible thats the type I was looking at. Not that it mattered to me.
Six-year-olds are too easily distracted to make solemn vows about anything other than insisting on a visit to the airport ice cream shop, but the image of that airplane stayed with me and does to this day. I cant honestly say I decided to become a pilot that day, but 13 years later, I was one.
A hundred years later, airlines and air terminals remain the most meaningful contact young people have with aviation. Contrast my innocent experience with the sterile if not frightening process of just getting to the airplane today. You have to strip your shoes off, stand in line and walk through some strange machine with your arms held high in surrender. TSA associates whove undergone brainscans to excise the words please and thank you, from their vocabularies poke, prod, hiss and otherwise do their best to make a hemorrhoidectomy more appealing than an airline trip. To pass through security is to experience Constitutional inversion: youre guilty until proven innocent.
The closest you get to seeing an actual airplane up close is through inch-thick terminal glass with the airplane half obscured by the very same jetway that will direct you antiseptically into a conveyance whose soulless plastic interior might just as well be a minivan. At least the minivan has cup holders and a civilized seat pitch.
You can further insulate yourself from the reality of flight by carrying along your own in a computer, a DVD player or an iPod. Nicely dressed ladies used to bring food and drinks, now its a bag of stale pretzels-First Class only-and on a short flight, they might as well stuff a funnel in your mouth and pressure feed your Diet Coke. That would save scooping up the cabin service items before youve taken the first sip.
If your seatmate is clothed in something other than a ripped t-shirt, gym shorts and flip flops, youre not on a domestic airliner; youve been time-warped to a Greyhound Bus, when travelers from Des Moines to Moline packed their own suitcases and made sure they brought along their dignity.
Someone meeting your flight or the reverse? The litter-strewn cellphone lot out there near the freight hangars and the fuel farm will loom large in your plans, followed by a harrowing dash to the arrivals lane where former Marine drill instructors recovering from road rage will be there to direct traffic, never missing a chance to send you around the loop again just as your passenger struggles through the terminal doors.
No wonder kids dont want to learn to fly. But at least the pilots still wave.