Aviation in Pop Culture: Our First Step in Recruiting

January 23rd, 2014 by Martin Rottler


How does one develop into an aviation geek? Is it something that develops as we grow up or is it that, to quote noted philosopher Lady GaGa, we are “Born this Way?” I’ve been pondering this issue over the last few weeks as I’ve recently been reunited with one of my favorite childhood movies, The Rocketeer. A comic book movie released before the onslaught of comic book movies, aviation makes up a large part of the setting and storyline. While not on the epic scale of The Avengers, the film is a fun trip to a fictional 1930s art deco California. Aviation was prominently featured in another integral part of my (limited by childhood) pop-culture life around the time of The Rocketeer‘s release: the television show TaleSpin. Re-imagining Jungle Book characters into bush pilots, the 43-episode series and its catchy theme song continues to hold a place of wonder and nostalgia in my heart.

My primary exposures to aviation came from two outlets: these two popular culture favorites and a bedroom window in a house under the approach path to Centennial Airport in Denver. I wasn’t lucky enough to have family that were pilots…but I was lucky enough to have family that supported my interest in the field. The Rocketeer and TaleSpin were a “hook” for my young mind, broadening my interest beyond toy cars to toy airplanes. That interest led to a sixth birthday party at the Stapleton Airport in Denver and an introductory flight lesson on the day after my tenth birthday at Centennial Airport.

In the months after Top Gun was released in 1986, the US Navy saw increased interest in naval careers, especially those in aviation. A recruiter at the time summed up the effect of the movie: “There seems to have been a big rush in those categories that I have to attribute to the movie. I’ve asked several of these individuals if they’ve seen the movie and if that’s why they came down to talk to us again and they’ve said ‘yes’.” A different audience than that of Saturday morning cartoons, yes, and another example of aviation in popular culture driving interest for people that otherwise wouldn’t had exposure to the field.

In some measure, my entire professional life can be tied back to a moderately successful comic book movie and 43-episode television series. Thanks to the mainstream success of Disney’s Planes and its associated merchandising, we now have another captive audience of young people that have been exposed to aviation. The stories of Baloo the bush pilot and Cliff the Rocketeer were enough to captivate my attention at a young and impressionable age, just as the story of Dusty Crophopper captivate many kids today. In 1986, the US Navy took the unusual step of setting up recruiting booths outside of movie theaters to build on the increased interest from those leaving screenings of Top Gun. Were it not for a family that actively supported my interest in aviation at that young age and enabling further experiences, the Rocketeer and TaleSpin toys might have ended up relegated to the same place as my wannabe construction worker hard hat. We are lucky now to have Planes and the upcoming Planes 2 to draw interest in the field to our sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, grandkids and family friends. See the movies, support the kids’ new interests in aviation and we’ll hopefully recruit a new generation of hobbyists and professionals both.

Martin Rottler

Martin Rottler is a lecturer at the Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies, in Columbus, Ohio and a Partner at First Segment. He is a commercial pilot and certificated flight instructor and has worked in general aviation, the airline industry, and international aviation. An avowed "avgeek" from a very early age, Martin maintains academic and personal interests in aviation education, outreach, flight training, and international aviation. He can be found via Twitter at @martinrottler. The views presented on this blog are Martin's and do not represent those of The Ohio State University, the OSU Center for Aviation Studies, or any other organization.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • http://iflyblog.com Brent Owens

    Great piece! I feel the same way. The more we can infuse young minds with something that can captivate their attention, the more successful we’ll be in growing our ranks. I was unrealistically optimistic that Disney’s Planes would enjoy the same success as Cars, but that wasn’t to be. In spite of that I’m sure it reached a lot of kids and the planted the seed.

    Fellow Cbus resident – Brent

  • Michael

    How about “Put yourself in the movie – learn to fly and join Dusty in the sky!” over a “Click Here” button on the official movies.disney.com/planes website?

    That button could lead to youngeagles.org, flighttraining.aopa.org, or some other site set up for the purpose of explaining the basics and finding a flight school.

    It seems like EAA already has a good connection with Walt Disney Studios and could make this happen.

  • John Cassil

    Here is a link to an outstanding “recruiting” video for today’s youth. Hats off to the folks that recorded this and set it to “current” music. In four minutes this clip does more to capture the attention of future pilots than my almost 40 years of experience!


  • Max Voysey

    Great observation – I also suggest budding pilots to be may be aroused by reading P 450-456 of Vol. 1 of “Fifty Shades of Grey”[#1 New York Times best seller] – it contains a really neat glider ride (yes girls it will spin your head!). This is about as “pop” a culture as you can get!
    P.S. Real glider pilots don’t forget to pre-flight the plane, the parachute and the passenger, don’t do acrobatics under 2000 feet, don’t terrify their passengers, and can’t keep it up for thirty minutes from three thousand feet from a dawn take off – but then – that IS pop culture: lot of unrealistic “sexy” stuff. . . . At least it helps us understand how our passengers/general public see pilots and aviation.
    M. Voysey in Toronto.

  • http://www.myflightblog.com Todd McClamroch

    I am hopeful Disney Planes and any sequels will help drive interest. I know my son and daughter gave up matchbox cars for a fleet of planes, I could not be prouder. Disappointing though is how few items Disney has offered targeted to girls. Nearly all their clothes are geared to boys. Such a shame as my daughter is probably more in love with the movie than my son.

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