Americans and flight go together like beer and cheese, or Biscoff cookies and a middle seat on a delayed United flight at O’Hare. While we did not invent aviation per se — due credit to the creator of heaven and earth on that one — Americans have been in pursuit of perfecting flight for some time. From the Kitty Hawk trials to the X-15 supersonic experiments, we’ve been strapping ourselves to increasingly volatile and ingenious air-based machines for over a century. Nowhere can you observe this altitudinous affection more than at this week’s Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture event in Oshkosh, Wis., which routinely brings over 600,000 visitors to the shores of Lake Winnebago. Walking the grounds here, I was struck by just how proud we are of our heritage in flight, the uniqueness of the American piloting community, and the freedom we enjoy of going wheels-up.
The first stop one should make at the EAA is Warbird Alley. Here in tidy rows are warplanes from World War I to the present day. Japanese, British, American, and Russki aircraft sit alongside one another as P-51 Mustangs swoop overhead. The opportunity to fly in a B-17 bomber or C-47 paratrooper transport is available to the general public for a nominal fee. Sit in the bleachers, and servicemen from multiple eras will regale you with tales of action they saw while standing in front of the types of planes they fought in. As one wanders the grounds, one of the many volunteers will occasionally hold you back as a Spitfire taxis past 20 feet away. The care and dedication provided these craft are a testament to those who maintain them, revealing a pride in what the craft represent and their impact on the world.
While flight has connected the globe, Americans have a unique relationship with aviation for reasons practical and dispositional. Ours is a vast nation with a topography ill-suited for ground transport, while aircraft allow us to skip over the Rockies, Appalachians, and grizzly-infused Alaskan wilderness with minimal effort. The Midwest does not need the plane for its ability to circumvent treacherous terrain, but to apply pesticides and weedkiller on the swaths of farmland, providing the nation’s food with chemical protection efficiently.
We attach national pride to airborne events as well. Every schoolchild knows the accomplishments of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. We celebrate the American World War II fighter pilots rebuffing the Zeros in the East and the Messerschmitts in the West while our B-17s bombed the enemy into submission, and rightfully so. Most of all is when we looked to the stars and landed on the moon, besting the USSR and making the case for freedom over tyranny. This culture of exploration and air superiority continues today in the launch of spacecraft from our shores, most recently by private-sector pioneers. The world comes to us when it wants to push the limits of human progress, and that is no accident.
Europeans and American progressives will occasionally mutter into their facial hair about our lack of “public transport” like trains and buses, not realizing just how vast this country is. Chicago to D.C. is two hours by air, eight times longer by rail. New York to Los Angeles is several hours by plane, a journey that would otherwise take a week. These longer air routes are often less expensive than public ground transport is or could be, particularly if one were to go the bus-and-hotel route. It commends the American spirit that we are constantly improving upon long-range solutions rather than remaining complacent with anachronistic technologies.
Just as commercial flights have brought the coasts closer together and made the Midwest traversable, so too has the civilian air scene provided opportunity for everyday men and women to leave the surface. An amazing thing about the U.S. is just how approachable flight is. A beginner craft like a used Cessna 172 starts at $75,000, or the price of a nice fishing boat. Lessons are widely available, with the total cost of classes and a recreational license coming in around $7,000. Many people find a partner with whom to split the cost of a plane, making flight obtainable for the middle-class individual. For those more daring or budget-restrained, ultralights and paragliders can be had for a fraction of the cost.
The U.S. ranks highest in the number of pilots (690,000) in the world; reliable statistics are harder to find for pilots per capita, but the impression on the Internet is that the U.S. leads by a wide margin even when factoring for population differences. The availability of relatively inexpensive planes, fuel, storage, and small airfields — or regular ol’ fields — creates a low-cost threshold for launching men and women into the clouds. The democratization of airspace is a great American achievement.
What may surprise those who favor a nanny-state is just how unregulated flight still is and how excellent American pilots are at self-policing. Licensure and certification are required for planes, but you can take off in an ultralight with nothing beyond a jacket and an operational engine. Accidents happen — as we are fallible creatures — but they are exceedingly rare.
An example of this sense of responsibility surfaced, to my own inconvenience, at the EAA. Mid afternoon brought a searing sun and few opportunities for respite; thus, I searched for a beer vendor. When finally there appeared a Miller Lite cooler behind a snack station, I rushed to the counter and gasped for their coldest brew, but the lady informed me there would be no alcohol sales before 5 p.m. No beer before 5 in Wisconsin? Unconscionable. The EAA self-regulated, deciding they didn’t want folks stumbling around near running planes, so they instituted an alcohol ban and only permitted beer after the day’s events. Flight is a pastime of the meticulous, the detail-oriented.
Should you ever have the opportunity to visit Wisconsin in the summer, please stop by the EAA airshow. It is American to the core, a celebration of flight and the progress we’ve made as a nation.