“You can literally learn any skill you want for free on YouTube. You can become a person of value in a matter of months.” –Elon Musk
“I just assume every YouTuber is a colossal %$#@bag until they prove otherwise–it’s much easier that way.” –YouTube commenter
I almost wrote that Americans love a spectacle, but what is more true is that humans love a spectacle. Thus, we have YouTube and a ready means to, at the touch of the keyboard or mouse, bring the spectacle right to the comfort and convenience of the desktop or the den TV.
For as surely as YouTube advances human knowledge and skill, it also stokes the outrage machine and encourages people to do galactically dumb stuff in the greedy, all-consuming quest for views. That means that two things can both be true: Musk’s claim that YouTube is a teacher for the ages and also that it’s a great stinking sewer of empty pixels that rob you of time you’ll never get back. So it teaches a skill you never had to exercise in high school or college: a sixth-sense ability to resist twisting your neck around to see the car wreck you know is coming—or, for our purposes, the airplane wreck.
Exhibit A is the story we ran over the weekend about a YouTuber who evidently feigned an emergency, bailed out of a nice old Taylorcraft and filmed it crashing. Then he gave us his simply harrowing tale of survival hiking out of the wilderness. (I could hardly stomach adding the link up there but it’s unfair to make you look for it.) A friend wrote me absolutely outraged about this and thought the guy ought to be jailed or at least punished in some way. Our story on the video was about the blowback, less the thing itself. And mea culpa, on a slow news weekend, we fell for the rubbernecking in quest of clicks.
I’m not particularly outraged by the video myself. Yeah, the stunt makes GA look bad, but I’ve long since stopped stressing about that, given all the boneheaded accidents we write about. On the other hand, I don’t care if the FAA finds a way to yank this guy’s certificate or the state of California makes him backpack out the wreckage on a littering charge as maybe prior restraint against the next self-centered yahoo who thinks this kind of thing is justified in the holy quest for online engagement.
And don’t think that YouTube spawned this kind of silliness. It just makes it more convenient to find and watch and inspire one-up copycats at algorithmic speed. In the great tradition of American spectacle, from the late 1890s to well into the 1930s, steam locomotives were crashed into each other for the sheer entertainment value. In one of the first in 1896, the resulting explosion killed two people and maimed dozens. One fan got a bolt through an eyeball for his trouble. Then there are demolition derbies, another uniquely American form of amusement for when baseball is just too boring. (Full disclosure: I’ve driven in two demo derbies.)
I’m trying to make a better angels argument here, supporting Musk’s claim which I think is undeniably true. YouTube offers a staggering amount of aviation content and the overwhelming majority of it is decent, a lot of it is good and a small percentage of it is brilliant. YouTube means it’s possible for a video maker to bore deep into a topic in a way a mainstream publisher never would or in ways even the trade press simply can’t for lack of expertise and space or airtime. YouTube’s time is essentially unlimited and available on demand for free, anytime you want it.
I’m not going to make this a blog about my favorite YouTube channels, but rather offer some examples that are the diametric opposite of click whoring. This one, for example, from boldmethod, offers a thorough, well-illustrated explanation of LPV/LNAV/VNAV approaches that’s essentially all you need to know. It’s serious exposition. It’s what Musk is talking about. Russ Still on Gold Seal Ground School has his version of this kind of content with terrific graphics that are especially useful for primary students.
Steve Thorn’s FlightChops channel has, for years, presented aviation topics in a friendly, accessible way in which you can actually learn something rather than just waiting for the rending of metal. (He may have had a little of that, however.) For nothing but rending of metal—well, almost—I like Juan Brown’s Blancolirio channel, which is nothing less than quick reaction accident reporting with some analysis, but with helpful layering of technique addressing what could have happened and what you might do about it. For more general interest, AirBoyd has an eclectic collection of current and vintage military, airline and general aviation topics. Some of these just entertain and inform, but some have genuine, instructional takeaways that might just serve as useful reminders to execute on what you already know. I’ll stop myself with just one more mention of favorites, the Imperial War Museum’s channel on World War II aircraft. It’s excellent.
There are several mega-subscriber channels that occasionally address aviation topics in interesting ways. My favorite is Vertasium and this one is interesting because it shows that you can attract 11 million subscribers—yes, 11 million—and engage them with 20-minute videos on intensely technical subjects. The presenter, Derek Muller, is what we should all strive for. He has a bright, informative style but one that’s not afraid of the math. Another favorite is Sabine Hossenfelder’s Science Without the Gobbledygook. Although it’s not an aviation channel, she touches on aerospace topics frequently enough to be worth watching, including this nice piece on hypersonic flight. Astronomer Scott Manley’s channel deals with space flight—past and present—in such depth that you’ll gain a good understanding of orbital mechanics, painlessly.
I could go on for thousands of words. If I didn’t mention your favorite YouTube channel, feel free to do so in the comments. I don’t mind the entertainment and spectacle aspects of aviation videos—after all, my own efforts aren’t exactly religiously scholastic—but after viewing that Taylorcraft offering, I feel like I need a shower and a dose of penance for willfully occupying the same YouTube universe. Just remember, at even a casual glance, there’s a lot more good in it than bad.