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.