Change of an Era

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.

21 thoughts on “Change of an Era

  1. I feel that way about many things modern. Cars, bicycles, appliances, even shoes. Even my wood stove is a simple cast-iron stove. No blower, no modern appearance. I love it! But I like to believe there will always be those who keep these things in their purest form, which (to me at least) is far more joyous.

    For whatever reason, many of the things I love most predate my current lifetime. I even found some joy in a very brutal winter, spent cutting, splitting and hauling firewood, keeping the fire going and the pipes thawed. And wondering what to do once it was over.

    I can only imagine that all this would be magnified a thousand times when it comes to flying. It sounds like the ultimate freedom, minus all the instruments and so forth. But apparently there are still quite a few who share your love of it. I think there always will be. 🙂

  2. Maybe it’s the “Faith, Hope and Love” thing…
    We seem to need reminders as we go along, as things become familiar, common place, normal we tend to get complacent, to forget.
    It used to be the railroad tracks, then it was the whiskey compass, then the NDB, next the VOR and now its the GPS.
    All of these are just tools to help guide us along our way, something to help and sometimes to distract us as our subconscious works on the bigger problem of just where we are actually going.
    It used to be keep the tracks low and to the left and you’ll get there. Next it was keep a specific number bobbing in the whiskey compass window and you’ll get there. Then, keep that needle pointed at the NDB and you’ll get there. Eventually it was keep the needle centered on the VOR indicator and you’ll get there. Nowadays it’s keep the picture of the GPS generated symbols on the screen just so and you’ll get there.
    Take an ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach as an example…. You’ve just droned along blindly through the clouds for several hours, corralling the gages and keeping all the numbers properly lined up. Several miles out, you join the localizer (left/right guidance) you follow it inbound. While the needle is perfectly (as close as you can..) centered, you fly into the glideslope (up/down guidance). You keep both needles centered now, like the crosshairs of a scope, you descend lower and lower “knowing” the runway is there, somewhere, waiting for you. And sure enough, out from the murk in front of your very eyes, materializes the runway!
    The Faith, Hope and Love reference, you ask?
    Faith – in your airplane and instruments, the tools and guidance you use to get “There”. (Your thoughts, beliefs, learnings and understandings).
    Hope – that by using the resources you are given, you will be guided in such a way that you will get “There”. (Living to your highest sense of right).
    Love – when you pop out of the clouds and, sure enough, laid out in front of you is the runway – your destination – you are “There”!! (“There” is Love and Love is “There”).

  3. My early flying days were around and involved with crop dusting. Very much the basic aircraft and the flying that you speak of.

    Although I marvel at the new technology in aviation, I long to once again fly a J-3 Cub on warm summer evening. Those split split doors open and watch the sunset as I fly just a few hundred feet above the patch work of fields. Bliss.

    Richard, your words through the years have been so much a part of my life. Thank you for those words and being Richard Bach.

  4. This from my friend Dan Nickens. It was a private message, but when I asked to put it here, he said it would be OK.

    Rage! Rage against the dying of the wind!

    “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.”

    So said Dylan Thomas.

    It may be a good night, this coming of age of composites and electrons, but those of us who have known the slipstream in our face will not so easily fade away.

    I’ve seen the new era on the muted glow of an electronic screen, the world from on high, that perspective once impossible for men without wings. On the whirling blades of a machine, my vision twisted through tree tops, swooped into valleys, and skimmed across ocean waves. I sat there behind an electronic control, not blinking, at scenes that were once so impossibly dangerous to behold.

    The man beside me was no flyer. He was a controller of electrons who guided my static hands when they faltered in fear of what fate might befall the whirling machine. “Don’t be concerned,” he told me. “It’s computer controlled. It won’t let you crash.”

    No crashing? No consequence to my ineptness? No price to pay for inattentiveness or neglect? It should be a miracle!

    It was no miracle. It was another, wider, layer of separation. Instead of experiencing flight, it was being experienced for me by the machine.

    “This is not for me,” I told my e-pilot friend.

    “Why not? It’s just like flying, only safer.”

    “It is the computer that is flying, my friend.
    It is the one that knows what’s out there.
    It is the computer that is sensing the world around it.
    It is the one knowing the gentle lift of a thermal.
    It is the computer bearing the responsibility for its fate.
    It is the one sensing the sharpness of the rocks below.
    It is the computer that suffers the consequences of its failures.
    It is the one that having the adventure of flight.”

    To punctuate my point, I quoted my wingman, a true flyer for all eras: “If I’ve learned one lesson in all my days, it’s this: If we want adventure in our lives, nobody’s going to make it happen but us.”

    So says Richard Bach.

    Adventure is my catalyst for learning. Without learning, our daylight is wasted. We trade daylight for darkness.

    It could come the day there are none left who take the risks and earn the rewards of flight. None who freely experience the world, unsheltered by plastic cocoons and electrons. That would truly be the age of machines.

    But I don’t believe it. Somewhere someplace sometime someone will hear the siren call to free flight, sung so long ago in a musty old book about seagulls. Casting safety rules to the stars, they will uncouple the autopilot, silence the machine, and soar through far away space on their own two wings.

    That is why we rage against the good night.

  5. The first airplane I fell in love with was a Luscombe Silvaire. If I remember rightly, she had no flaps, so the pilot had to slip to land if he didn´t want to use the whole airstrip – and then some. No fancy electronic devices, only the most-needed instruments, and a stick. How irritated I was when discovering some modern airplanes have steering wheels instead of a stick – who´d want to feel like sitting in a car while flying a plane?

    Till this day, when a plane catches my eye, it´s invariably either an oldtimer or it at least has the look of one; simply and harmonically built, taildragger, high wing or biplane. Luscombe. Cessna 140. J3C. Aeronca Champ. They all radiate the spirit of _flying_ as opposed to air-travelling.

    And that spirit of flying is exactly what is so unsurpassedly brought to life in your books, as in those of Saint-Ex. We might be turning into a minority, but I don´t believe there will be ever a world without people looking longingly at the sky, yearning for the freedom that is to be found there – in simple flight. And those people will find your books, and recognize themselves and their feelings in them.

    • The first airplane I learned to fly was Luscombe Silvaire. I washed and polished its bright aluminum. In return came a 50-minute flight lesson, and my life began.

  6. How that resonates.
    I think many of us who fly are seeking something intangible in the air, a sense of connectedness, of freedom, of belonging. Unfortunately, each level of “sophistication” that is added to an aircraft places another layer between us and that which we seek.
    I started flying light aircraft in my 20’s, moved to sailplanes in my 30’s and discovered paragliding in my 40’s. 10 years on and I’m doing it still.
    Each move one towards simplicity, purity, to a greater sense of connectedness to the air around me. Part of me wonders though, (particularly after reading your books Richard), had I started my flying in an old open cockpit biplane instead of a Piper Warrior whether I would have felt the same urge, the same feeling that something was missing. Perhaps one day I’ll decide to find out.

  7. I hear an element that sounds like old folks complaining about how fast the world is moving now a days and how kids don’t understand what it really means to work or fly or drive a “real” car. Or my mother telling me that I really didn’t “experience” child birth because I had an epidural. It is the passing of this time/space, the passing of our time in this time, that’s all. Not less, not more. Every age finds its core regardless of the ever changing technology. Every age needs its messiahs and seagulls to show a way. I am pleased that I have chosen to participate in this day and time and with this thought leader. But there will be others as we circle back through all these various scenarios, looking for those breadcrumbs (what a wonderful image! Thank you so much for that gift, Susan!) Just as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry didn’t want to participate in the type of flying Richard went on to embrace, we can let it go and remember those wonderful times, knowing that real or not real doesn’t matter. And let the next era begin.

  8. You hit the mark perfectly. Over here in the UK, about 40 years ago, as a teenager your “Gift of Wings” hooked me on a path that has kept me smiling (and broke!) ever since. I am now chairman of the UK Vintage Aircraft Club. May I copy your words for our next club magazine?

    Better still. One of the aeroplanes which owns me (a 1914 BE-2c replica) did its initial test flights behind that lovely fine-pitched Falcon propeller that once used to grace the front of your Tiger Moth. After finding we couldn’t get more than 60 mph from it, we put another on the aeroplane, but it remains one of my most treasured possessions. (any one who read your “thing under the sofa” article will understand!)

  9. I love reading your “short stories” Richard. Your “Jonathan” book changed my life many years ago, and you are still my inspiration. In my mind I rode along in the bi-plane and soared over the ocean with you. I’m in my 70s now and of all the people in the world I’d like to meet, it would be you at the top of the list! Thanks for everything.

  10. I am very pleased to see that you are still with us dear Richard Bach. I can’t imagine that I am really writing to the man who wrote A Gift of Wings! This book is always next to me and I read a bit of it every day. It’s a real gift to enjoy those words that so completely express what we all as flyers feel.
    I am a french flyer who bought all your books, often those in american. I discovered flying at a time when my life didn’t seem to go well at all. My job felt boring and useless, my living on this planet seemed useless too and I felt lost and lonely. Pushing the door of that flying school in Pontoise ( France ) in 2006 probably saved my life and I still believe flying is a miracle. I feel I am now a way better person than I would have been if I hadn’t discovered flying was made for me. My airclub send me to school again so that I become a flight Instructor and I am very proud of it. I want people to come with me in the future and discover their heaven as I have discovered once.
    I feel strange about the fact that you don’t like those electronic device and carbon planes. I think planes are means to reach better places and better feelings and the stuff they are made of won’t change that. I see those WT9 dynamics and Pipistrel Virus and other little planes and wonder how efficient and fast they are with so little engines. Technology won’t change my mind about the magic of flying. I love the look of a Cessna 140 and would be pleased to fly one someday but what they have achieved with those WT Dynamics and Pipistrel Virus is really great too.
    I can remember a time when my learning of flight wasn’t going well, pleasure was no more there since I felt dismayed by all those figures and safety things. I just wanted to be in the air ( “Let’s not practice”) and was fed up with other things. My flight instructor made me a present since he had well understood that : he flew our little Cessna 150 through the overcast sky and let me surf on the surface of those always white tops of clouds. This I will never forget and the plane was just a means to reach hapiness, whatever the make or the stuff it was made of.
    I owe you much pleasure reading your books and I owe my flight instructors much pleasure learning and just beeing next to them. You are family and it’s all that matters. Please don’t let some technological devices separate us.
    We are all as readers looking forward to reading many new books from you!

    • Your flight instructor is a true pilot! Please give my warm regards to him for the sweep and depth of his understanding. I’m sure the new aircraft are lovely…my own little Puff has some of the new construction. My world now, though, is low and slow. I’m not a working pilot, who can use the flat panel GPS and all its family. I simply want to stay below the airways, land in the remote waters and know that Puff and me are _flying!_ There are sailplanes and parapentes and wing suits, but I like to fly when I choose and not depend on others, or the winds, to fly. I’ve pretty well flown most other ways. I haven’t found anything simpler that keeps me in the air, than Puff. You and I, loving the sky, have a grand life ahead!

  11. Glad to see you sharing your thoughts with us Richard. Have read your books for years, even saw your movie years ago. Had the honor of flying with Stu in his Travel Air about 3 times when l lived in Portland OR. But l am like you, the new fast glass, flat screens and gizmos just do not do it for me. The Wacos, Birds, KR-31, Travel Airs, New Standard, Monocoupes and all the classics get me going. Would love to fly a AeroncaC-3 with the little 36 hp Aeronca engine. Well please keep sharing your thoughts.

  12. Thanks for your post — and for so many words and thoughts over the years! I was introduced to /Jonathan/ as a very young and precocious reader and never looked back 🙂 Many books later, my wife and I got our licenses late in 2008. She’s now almost a CFI-A & CFI-I and looks forward to inspiring a new generation of pilots.

    We learned in a 172, and that’s what we now have, and that’s all there will be for the foreseeable future. We’re happy that she has steam gauges, but want to be comfortable using glass and able to enjoy newer planes as well. She’s fast enough that we can go somewhere for a vacation but slow enough that we can enjoy the sights along the way. A jack of all trades, the family station wagon, she meets our needs.

    I still have “only” a private pilot rating (I’m the bank who pays for her training 😉 but look forward to honing my skills enough to be smooth and capable in instrument flight — and beyond as I continue to learn and grow. Meanwhile, a favorite activity is to file for the flight and request “two miles left & right course deviation for clouds” — so that we can go and kiss them on the way by 🙂 We practice our local NDB approaches often, work on VOR, loc, & ILS as well, and make sure we sightsee along the way. We almost always get flight following for VFR flights and enjoy the camaraderie of enthusiasts working together, but we also love to fly by compass & chart and truly know where we are.

    Would that I could fly a Cub, a 180, an ultralight, a Baron, a Stearman, a Cirrus, a Waco, a Mooney, a Husky, a Pilatus, a Sukhoi, a Breezy, a Lake, an Extra, and everything in between … but it’s enough that I get to fly at all 🙂 Is new life & technology bad or painful? I have to say no, because the old life & technology is still there.

    David T-G

  13. I actually used as references your two short stories from “A Gift of Wings” during the e-discussion in the Embry-Riddle MOOC on Human Factors. “Found at Pharisee” and “A School for Perfection” are still relevant almost 50 years later, mostly because aviation is becoming even more about technology-oriented and less about the skill/art of flying. I’ve been wondering how you were dealing with the evolution of the craft. Nice to know I’m not alone out here.

  14. I can certainly relate! The license plate on my pickup is “BIPLANE”… for the Fisher Classic I built, the Hatz I used to fly and the book that Richard kindly signed for me at OSH.

    But as I write this I’m also setting up an iPad Air to be used in my sleek little modern Allegro 2000. And flying has all become too easy, too predictable, too lacking in adventure.

    A couple weeks ago my old outdated GPS failed during a flight. Having no backup, I found myself flying with a finger on a sectional, finding landmarks on the ground, checking compass headings and mentally calculating ETA and fuel reserves.

    I was in Heaven.

  15. Yes, Richard, you may be stuck in time – but not the way you think.

    At its core, the appeal of flight is simple. And, it’s an appeal that resonates in the heart, not the head.

    But, along the way, 20th-Century flight became a very intellectual, cerebral exercise. We did a lot of book learning. We learned a lot of calculations. We turned airplanes into machines that are very complex, and complicated to operate.

    If you use them the right way, electronics can bring you closer to the simplicity of flight, not take you farther from it. They can get you out of your head, and put you back in touch with what you loved.

    When I got a moving map GPS display in my sailplane, it allowed me to spend a lot less time with my head down, navigating, and a lot more time looking outside. Yes, I carry a chart and yes, I know how to use it. But, if you think GPS takes you farther from the joy of flight, and that reading map and compass and stopwatch takes you closer to it, you have mistaken the fun of navigating for the joy of flight. Navigation is fun, but it’s all in your head, not your heart. Navigation is not central to the joy of flight.

    A big part of the appeal of electric motors to turn the propeller is that they’re nearly silent, and are immensely reliable (they have, after all, one moving part). Forget about mixture, carb heat, even (to a great extent) density altitude. Forget about pistons and cams and lifters and pumps and filters and fuel tank management. These things are interesting and fun, but they’re all cerebral, all “in your head”. They are a distraction from flight – indeed, part of the joy of soaring is leaving all that behind, and just flying. Electric motors promise – and so far, it’s just a promise – to bring something similar to people who want to fly with power. Simplicity. Pure flight.

    For those who use airplanes as transportation, who aviate rather than fly (as you once made the distinction), autopilot technology is quickly moving toward the point where it will be possible to plan the flight with computer assistance, and let the autopilot fly it. Cheating? Why? It should make it possible for many more people to take up flying. They’ll still need to understand what they’re doing: they just won’t need to practice it constantly to stay current, to remember all the little rules and procedures, facts, and calculations. Simplicity there, too.

    You’ve had half the insight, Richard. You’ve reduced complexity for yourself, made your experience of flight more of an experience and less of an intellectual exercise, by limiting the type of airplane you fly and the type of flying you do.

    Electronics offer the possibility of bringing lower complexity, and purer experience, to a wider range of flying activities.

    So, you can choose to let flight pass you by. Or, as you did when you discovered paragliding, you can perk up, get interested, drop the preconceptions, and go discover how you can use what’s new.

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