IT USED TO BE, that one could tell that a new era was happening. In electronics, it’s happened, In publishing, it’s happening, but the one I know best is aviation.
I remember the old pilots never much wanted to fly on instruments, reading headings and altitudes from the heading indicator and the altimeter, while all the world outside the windshield was grey fog. They called instrument flying “Needle-ball and alcohol,” for the turn needle, the ball to show an airplane slipping or skidding, and the magnetic compass, damped with alcohol.
You could go anywhere you wanted with those crude instruments. An airspeed indicator was nice to have, too. And an oil pressure gage for the engine.
Early pilots flew by the picture they saw, looking at the world outside of their open cockpits. They didn’t enjoy “flying blind,” but in the 1930’s it was the beginning of an era, pretty well necessary if you wanted to fly every day.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery lived the first part of that new era. He didn’t like modern planes, didn’t much care for the P-38H (F-5) photo plane he flew at the end of the second world war.
He had lost many old friends, flying in the 20’s and 30’s, and the new era was not for him. He disappeared after what he had promised would be his last flight in the ’38, July 31, 1944. Some said that he didn’t really want to live while aviation changed and his friends had gone.
The next 50 or sixty years were the instrument era of aviation. Then all at once the era changed again, to digital instruments, and flat plate moving maps. All pretty colors to show one’s position, altitude, restricted areas, terrain, weather, other airplanes in the sky.
Airplanes changed from steel and aluminum to carbon composite plastic forms, very slick and fast. And a strange thing. I don’t much care for the new airplanes, the new era.
A few years ago, I down-shifted into very light aircraft, my little seaplane Puff has no flat-plate flying instruments, no digital engine instruments. She can fly perfectly well if I took every instrument out of the panel and left it on the ground. She’s a simple day-flying airplane, fabric covering for her for wings and tail, she lands on a little strip of land, or when you wish, she lands of the surface of a lake of a calm sea.
This time in my life, I rarely stop at an airport. I care about quiet hidden places, I land by summer islands, most of them uninhabited. A little engine for Puff, a sliding transparent panel…you can open the cockpit with your elbow; an old-fashioned tail-wheel, simple retractable wheels, room for two people at most, and she’s happiest with one.
It happened, then, I realized flying, that I felt just the same as Antoine de Saint-Exupery had felt. Aviation had passed me and my time. I had flown a fair amount of instrument hours when I had to be at big airports on time. But now? That’s not me.
I am uninterested in modern aircraft, modern moving maps, electric motors to turn propellors. The sky that I have loved since I was six, has it changed, too?
If it has, there are a lot of us still caught in what is for us the golden age of flying. Maybe, a hundred years from now, everything of our time will be gone. But I hope there will stay that day some words we wrote, words from the past, telling of the sky we knew in an old era, and loved.