Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump as well as many other best sellers, released last year a factual account of three famous pilots; Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle and Charles Lindbergh. Titled The Aviators, Groom’s book is a fascinating read, especially for those of us who enjoy flight and participate in the adventure of being aloft. As well as most of us know the stories of those famous flyers, there is more to learn and much to admire. I am impresses by the discipline exhibited by each of Groom’s subjects. Each believed strongly in the value of aviation and the role this form of transportation would play in the development of our nation.
While Groom offers many interesting vignettes of those three famous men, one involving Eddie Rickenbacker in particular resonated with me. Emerging from World War I as the leading US “ace” with 26 enemy aircraft downed, he continued in aviation and eventually became an unstoppable force within the emerging airline industry as long-time head of Eastern Airlines. Rickenbacker was too old to be a military aviator when the US entered WWI, however. He obtained his chance to fly through the intervention of aviation pioneer Colonel (soon to be General) Billy Mitchell, the officer Eddie served as an enlisted man assigned to be Mitchell’s personal driver during the initial US efforts in war. Those who wish to fly do not take no for an answer.
The initial exploits of Rickenbacker, Doolittle and Lindbergh took place during a dozen or so years when the world seemed fascinated with flight. Prior to Lindbergh’s New York to Paris nonstop crossing of the Atlantic in 1927, the public looked on aviation as the stuff of thrill seekers and daredevils—fun to watch, but of little practical value. Post Lindbergh’s historic feat, the public’s attitude transitioned from awed observer to anxious participant. People wanted to be pilots, and the press wrote about airplanes becoming almost commonplace. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to fly.
In the 1930s, reality and the Great Depression combined to inhibit the dream of everyman becoming a pilot. Post World War II, when thousands of servicemen returned home with belief in the importance of air power, the dream of a robust private aviation movement was renewed. During the first two years following WWII, well over 30,000 light aircraft were produced. By 1950, the production of small GA aircraft was down to a few thousand, and they were not selling.
Realizing the dream—and the potential—of private flying is still within our grasp. Being able to fly from A to B in a straight line and at two to four times the speed of today’s automobiles is a capability of great value, whether the trip is for business or pleasure. As a community of private aviators, however, we need to address the factors that prevent the dream from being a reality.
Costs will come down only if the number of people participating in General Aviation increases. Even the most basic automobile would cost considerably more than a new Bonanza if they were sold to as few people as purchase light aircraft today.
Learning to fly can be made simpler and more effective through innovative use of simulators and computerized training aids. Perhaps talented organizers can apply their insights to create club programs were costs can be shared and participants can enjoy the comradeship of likeminded aviators.
Through training that provides competence and justifiable confidence, private pilots can use GA aircraft safely and efficiently for personal business and pleasure. Pioneers such as those described in The Aviators demonstrated the value of believing in the value of aviation and living their convictions.
The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.