Aviation History Themes: From the Documentary “To Fly” to Charles Lindbergh

THE SMITHSONIAN DOCUMENTARY “TO FLY:”

Perhaps the quest for speed and distance and the conquest of air had not initially been intended to change our self-perspective. But it ultimately achieved this.

When the first balloon had risen from the ground in 1783 in France, it not only signaled the dawn of aerial flight, it also provided the foundation of man’s first external perspective of himself-as if he had removed himself from the ground’s gravitational lock and looked back at himself for the first time. Conversely, this act was not without repercussion. The balloon’s gentle brush with the church steeple not only demonstrated the need for greater lateral control, it also became the first time an actual “intruder” from above had descended upon what consensus had hitherto considered firm, solid, inescapable “earth”-and, perhaps, the only populated one. Because this may have been the first real “small step for man,” it signaled aviation’s infantile beginning.

In its childhood as a machine of pleasure and speed, the 1920s barnstorming designs of piston engines, dual wings, fabric-covered airfoils, and wire bracing struts soon demonstrated their capabilities of conveyance and protection during their rapid World War I and II development by transcending distance, political boundary, country, and continent-and, ultimately, planet.

No other development in the history of human achievement had proceeded at such a rapid pace-in the process changing one’s conception of space and time. The first orbital, atmosphere- and gravity-escaping rocket launch, paralleling the first balloon flight, again provided entirely new, previously inexperienced vistas and perspectives-only now from a vastly increased height attained with exponential velocity. For all its development, the orbiting capsule was, in a paradoxical way, just as “fragile” in the atmosphereless void of space as the balloon had been. It was certainly just as developmentally infantile.

The space mission clearly demonstrated that air-space conquest had striven toward increasing speed and distance. But that mission, like the balloon’s, had only been the first baby-step toward the next stage of development and discovery. Who can predict what that will reveal?

Although the Smithsonian film, To Fly, traces the evolution of human transportation, its successive speed- and altitude-yielding technological advancements have permitted ever-greater distances to be negotiated. With these distances have come ever-changing self-perspectives. As the line “we live only in the narrowest of margins… snowflakes condensed momentarily in the snowstorms and firestorms of matter in space” inherently expresses, this further-reaching travel has demonstrated just how insignificant our position in time and space really is… and perhaps, on a comparative scale, just how fragile we really are. The greater the distance, it seems, the more modified the perspective. Although human-and particularly air and space-transportation has resulted in numerous benefits, it has also yielded a secondary evolution: of human perspective. Einstein’s theory of relativity entails a time/speed ratio. Could there not similarly be a distance/perspective ratio?

THE DEVELOPMENT OF AIR TRANSPORTATION:

The development of air transportation entailed a triple-phase evolution: that of lighter-than-air craft, heavier-than-air designs, and, ultimately, spaceflight.

Faced with hitherto unknown flight realms, the earliest pioneers first had to attain lift with their kites and balloons before subsequent designers could control it. As usually occurs when faced with the unknown, people met it with skepticism, fear, and superstition-explaining consensus thought about Da Vinci’s aerial creations as “works of the devil.” Undaunted, the early pioneers continued to conquer and tame the elements with increased stability, rigidity, speed, and strength. Skepticism slowly rolled into acceptance with demonstrable and further-reaching proof of design integrity with such crossings as those of the English Channel by Bleriot and the Atlantic by Lindbergh. The fact that both were water- as well as distance-coverages represented a simultaneous dual-element conquest: air and sea.

With resultant speed, distance, and reliability advancements, aerial flight increasingly facilitated war, trade, business, communications, and common passenger transport and therefore became increasingly integral to our lives. The emotional responses of fear and skepticism had thus come full cycle-to those of full-scale trust and dependence.

THE NORTH AMERICAN B-25 MITCHELL:

Designed in 1938 to fulfill an Air Corps requirement for a medium-range bomber, the B-25, then designated the NA-40, first flew in January of the following year with two 1,100-hp Pratt and Whitney Wasp engines, but it was subsequently destroyed.

Still impressed with the overall design, the Air Corps ordered a modified version, with tail gun installation, designated NA-62. It initiated test flying on August 19, 1940.

Perhaps its most famously symbolic mission had been the launching of 16 B-25s from the aircraft carrier Hornet on April 18, 1942 to commence the first aerial attack against Japan. Although all aircraft were lost, the mission nevertheless fulfilled its purpose.

Several successive versions were manufactured, including the 75-millimeter cannon derivative designated the B-25G and the 14.50 caliber gun-equipped B-25H-the latter of which qualified as WWII’s most extensively armed aircraft.

The B-25 Mitchell inspected at Farmingdale’s Republic Airport in September of 1995, tail number N3161G in olive green markings, revealed itself as a mid-wing monoplane with dual, 1,700-hp Wright Cyclone, three-bladed engines whose installation points provided the division between the wing root-to-engine wing dihedral and the engine-to-wing tip anhedral. The wing itself, devoid of leading edge devices, featured trailing edge dual-section plain flaps, again divided by the powerplants. Characteristics of the design were the dual vertical stabilizers mounted on either side of the horizontal tail. Forward and aft glazed gunner stations were provided, although both were devoid of seating or armament on this particular aircraft. Visibility was provided by a two-pane wrap-around windshield and two rectangular side windows on either side of the cockpit, which itself was above the forward gunner’s station. The aircraft sat on a single-wheeled, aft-retracting tricycle undercarriage.

Of the almost 11,000 B-25s produced-the most numerically popular of which had been the cannon-removed, 12 machine gun-equipped B-25J-the last had not been retired from service until January of 1959, two decades after its NA-40 prototype had first taken to the sky.

THE GREAT AIR RACE OF 1924:

Concurrent with every life cycle, there is a necessary period of disconnection from the safe, playful proximity of the womb in order to commence the maturing, autonomy-fostering sequence so that one may eventually be able to provide a bonafide function and purpose in the world. One thus becomes a “link” in the survival chain. The barnstormers and stunt pilots, generating interest through their acrobatics and speed, had hitherto demonstrated their aerial designs as playful apparatuses devoid of specific benefit or function. But, like their adolescent human counterparts, airplanes necessarily had to prove their reliability and worth by demonstrating their abilities to traverse distance and geographical boundary. Mitchell, believing that aircraft were the keys to future power, strength, and great utility, endorsed the global circumnavigation of four dual-crewed, Liberty engine-powered biplanes to fulfill such a purpose.

Perhaps to accomplish such a feat, man first had to sublimate his own survival to that of the greater survival of mankind-to risk, to dare, to prove, and to ultimately triumph. This, in part, mirrored the child-to-manhood phase. And risked they did: they contended mechanical failure, accident, diversion, snowstorm, sandstorm, squall line, fatigue, temperature polarity, and death. But mankind would ultimately reap the benefits from the seeds they sowed.

That the first aerial Pacific crossing had culminated in the attainment of their desired trajectory by but a single mile deviation certainly indicated that this aircraft “child” would lead a very fruitful, productive life.

Machines sometimes take on the personalities of those who design (and navigate) them. The fact that the airplane, in its quest to mature and prove its worth, emulated the human’s developmental cycle, almost imbued it with religious overtones: the airplane was designed “in his image”-and was therefore created to serve him.

The successful coverage of the earth’s 26,000 miles in 176 days provided the eternal foundation of aviation and, indirectly, of man himself. For what else could have been reflected in the aerial machine other than the human who had breathed life into it so that it could facilitate him, becoming, like the matured adult, the newest link in the survival chain?

And of the post-adult and -human cycle: is it not symbolic that the 1924 air race entailed a complete earthly circumference? Perhaps like life itself, the race made a complete circle to return to its place of origin. Do all things not begin anew… ?

THE MOVIE “THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS:”

Poised on the threshold of any bold endeavor, one invariably faces the moment when his abilities, skills, and beliefs become directly pitted against the event. Despite all prior preparation and conviction, doubts invariably filter through, shackling confidence and reason, and they must be counteracted with a retracing of the steps which led to the present decision. During the apprehensive, restless night prior to his solo transatlantic crossing, Lindbergh experienced just such a phenomenon.

Rehearsing his past to rebuild temporarily lost confidence, he reasoned his way through the events which had prepared him for his undertaking. Having braved a blinding, stinging snowstorm enroute to Chicago during his mail-carrying days in an open-cockpit biplane and suffering engine loss, he had parachuted to an icy field as the aircraft patterned into a spin and crashed. Ultimately covering the remaining distance by train, he determined that a transatlantic crossing would dispel such a reputation of unreliability and demonstrate commercial aviation’s full potential. With its technological infancy now having been outgrown, it had entered its adolescent, maturity-seeking phase-if the world could only be made aware of this fact.

Although Lindbergh’s investors saw his solo pilotage in a single-propeller design devoid of navigator and sextant as dangerous and dependent upon 40 hours of vigilance and control, his ultimate intent was to sublimate the inherent weight reduction to increased range.

Ryan Airlines, Inc., of San Diego, produced the specified design with a 4,000-mile range during a 63-day period utilizing round-the-clock manufacturing schedules in order to beat Europe-emanating competition. The fact that the aircraft was a streamlined, high-wing monoplane indicated that Lindbergh’s ideals were already being realized. The actual flight would certainly seal the fate of this fact.

Following its almost symbolic rollout into the fog-shrouded dawn prior to departure on May 20, 1927, the silver Ryan monoplane was plunged into the darkness, doubt, and obscurity of consensus belief concerning the attempt, yet the tiny orange glow piercing the sky on the horizon somehow reflected promise and hope-a target for which to aim. From the present standpoint, however, France was just as infinitesimal in size.

The precarious, mud- and water-impeding take off, which barely cleared the tree line at the perimeter of Long Island’s Roosevelt Field, led to a course paved with lack of visibility, black of night, icing conditions, insecurity, sleep deprivation, self-doubt, and much soul-searching.

But Lindbergh ultimately triumphed-with God and perhaps his former student priest pilot’s prayer carrying him the last hundred yards to the ground. Charles Lindbergh, through his 3,610-mile struggle, in the process parented commercial aviation into maturity.

THE BOEING B-17 FLYING FORTRESS:

A sense of awe is invariably evoked in a person when he stands face-to-face with an historically significant aircraft, such as I did on a crystal blue, summer-temperature day in mid-October at Farmingdale’s Republic Airport. The olive-green B-17, resting on its conventional undercarriage and bearing the registration 124485 and the name Memphis Bell on either side of its nose, dwarfed the line of light Beech, Cessna, and Piper recreational aircraft. In many ways, the B-17 dwarfed all other designs during WWII, regardless of their size.

Designed to meet the Army Air Corps requirement for a multi-engine anti-shipping bomber, Boeing broke from the standard twin-engine design by doubling the number of powerplants to significantly increase payload, range, and service ceiling. The resultant Model 299, powered by four 750-hp Pratt and Whitney Hornet, three-bladed pistons, first flew on July 28, 1935-and was crewed by eight and could carry a payload of eight 600-lb bombs.

So inherently flexible had the basic low-wing, dorsal-finned aircraft been, however, that it was progressively adapted for varying roles with turbocharged Wright Cyclone engines for higher-altitude performance, increased area rudder and flaps for greater effectiveness on the B-17B, and self-sealing tanks, flush guns, and a ventral bathtub on the B-17C-20 of which had been operated by the RAF. The B-17D weathered most of the flak in the Pacific theatre. The succeeding B-17E incorporated a larger fin for high-altitude bombing accuracy, a powered dorsal, increased armor protection, and ventral and tail turrets.

So instrumental had the design been to the war, in fact, that Boeing, Lockheed, and Douglas all simultaneously churned out copies in staggering numbers. The 3,405 B-17Fs produced featured the newly introduced long Plexiglas nose, paddle-wing propellers, and underwing rack provision. The ultimate and most numerically popular version, the B-17G introduced in 1942, featured a chin turret and flush staggered waist guns and accounted for an additional 8,680-unit production.

Through 12,731 aircraft, battle over Europe and in the Pacific, and indispensability in mission after mission victory, aircraft 124485 proudly stood before me in triumphantly gleaming morning sun to tell me her story.

US AIRLINE INDUSTRY EMPLOYMENT:

According to Robert Crandall, chairman and CEO of American Airlines, “deregulation is anti-labor and transfers wealth from the employees’ pockets to the passengers’.” The dwindling spiral of deregulative force-driven airfares has resulted in higher-density seating, eroding service, increased daily aircraft utilization, and reduced profitability. Although these lower fares have produced explosive US passenger traffic growth-which, of late, has become an increasingly global trend-their inherent reduction leaves fewer monetary resources for aircraft purchases, training, salaries, and employee benefits, and has indirectly resulted in part-time, benefit-devoid, ground-service company employment.

Emphasizing this harsh reality were the common themes expressed by the two guest speakers: present conditions and acute competition have necessitated the ultimate-tuning of the preparation and application process, inclusive of applicable education, resume composition, and self-presentation during subsequent interview formalities. Based upon my own airline industry experience, networking and proper contacts have additionally never been more vital in securing adequately yielding positions.

Airline deregulation is current, still-evolving history. I have lived it! Deregulative forces–and not choice–have been the culprit and responsibility for my hitherto five-carrier, 15-year aerospace career. My personal prognosis regarding ground positions with US airlines is regrettably not optimistic: passengers will never forego the accessibility of air travel attained by means of low fares and airlines have thus far only been able-and some very unsuccessfully-to counteract this spiral with rampant service, salary, and benefit reductions. Equally regrettable is the fact that foreign flag carriers have increasingly emulated, rather than rejected, this pattern. Deregulation, whether in the originating US form or the maturing global guise has wrenched the foundation upon which airlines have traditionally rested: protectionism and adequately-sustaining fares.

LINDBERGH: THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH:

Human behavior is like language. A very clear message could well be in the process of being delivered vis-à-vis a person’s actions, but unless one has the ability to translate the statement, it becomes lost communication. The fact that a person’s stigmatized image of achievement and victory further clouds the message’s reception renders the task a double translation. These statements certainly apply to Charles Lindbergh… but only if focus is placed on the man behind the myth.

In order to understand the forces at work, one must first reduce some psychological concepts to simplified terms. I could not give you $5.00, for instance, unless I had $5.00-and unless someone had given it to me. Similarly, Lindbergh could not give love and emotions unless he had been given these feelings, particularly during childhood. People who attempt to navigate life with a hole of this size and significance in their souls characteristically exhibit personality traits of physical- and emotional-disconnection, reclusivity, antisocial tendencies, rigidity, “self-periphery living,” prejudice, and the perceived inability to err. Many powerful, well-known historical figures have sadly portrayed these traits.

That Lindbergh’s father had once left him in a lake in order for him to learn how to swim may have fostered an independence and self-reliance, but it also could have been the early origins of his mistrust. His mother, in shaking his hand each evening before he went to bed, certainly supported this perception of coldness, lack of love, and unconcern. Love is the nourishment of the self; without it, the self fails to develop and one retreats, withdraws, and numbs out-so much as that one can actually disconnect from physical and emotional pain in extreme cases. Lindbergh’s father, in proof, once braved an operation without anesthetic. And what little parental foundation Lindbergh himself had had crumbled at age five when his parents ultimately separated. Thus negotiating life with an undeveloped, unnourished self, he contended with self-estrangement and peripheral living. Unconnected to his inner “core,” he may never have known his true “self.”

Although he loved to fly, the act most likely provided an escape by severing all conscious connection with his painful past. Airborne, he was first able to attain “new heights,” superiority, triumph, and control. It could well have been the only “inner control” he had ever been able to feel. Flight provided a sense of validation: his acts of danger and daredevilism may have been a form of self-test and, when successful, or proof of self-worth, albeit fleeting: nevertheless, it was positive reinforcement and worth certainly never received during childhood. This degree of danger forced him to live “on the edge”-a condition which seemed to mirror his internal state. Self-estranged, childhood-emanating insecurity causes a person to live on the edge most of his life.

That he viewed himself as infallible with cement-like convictions is superficial proof of nothing and conversely indicates a mighty defense against deep-rooted, overwhelming insecurity-a feeling he most likely had never been able to tap into. This chronic need for “cover-up” and compensation usually results in absoluteness, singular-perspective thinking. In its extreme, it is unhealthy.

Although Lindbergh had been greatly lauded with awards, telegrams, gifts, packages, titles, and employment offers after his transatlantic crossing, could the crowds not have been unconsciously celebrating his disjointed toxic foundation which had driven him to the event? The world may have viewed him differently after the flight, but the man behind the triumph remained unchanged: he continued to be just as private, reclusive, and disconnected. A person cannot connect with others until he first connects with his own “self.”

His son’s kidnapping and death may have only strengthened his misbeliefs concerning the primary figures associated with his past and most likely served as a reflection of the world’s cruelty, causing him to tighten his grip on his numbed, unfeeling defenses. Only able to examine the tragedy analytically, he expressed no feeling, grief, or emotion. In its almost historical reenactment, the event, now directed at this son, most likely reinforced his childhood misconceptions and caused him to react the only way he was able to-to escape-an act he may have internally rehearsed every day of his life. Disconnection from the self is escape.

Unable to feel, Lindbergh could not “feel” for others: he was unable to make a distinction between Nazi concentration camp killings and those randomly occasioned by war. Could his endorsement of death not have been an agreeing expression of what he so desperately needed to act out during childhood against those who had failed to foster his needed caring and love and who, resultantly, instilled the initial mistrust in him? Infants who fail to establish a connection with a primary care-giver during the precious first few moments of life are unable to connect with their own “selves” and trust others to meet their needs.