By Scott Spangler on November 26th, 2008
The only thing that sucks worse than the economy right now is the state of aviation. Mix layoffs with shrinking pilot numbers and the growing list of new regulations and requirements that benefit only bureaucrats, and you have a case of cynicism about the industrys future.
In living aviation history for the past three decades, and reading about that which I missed, it strikes me that aviation remained vital in the direst circumstances, like the Great Depression, when flying was an adventure that brought people together, and attracted newcomers.
That spirit started fading in the late 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, aviation was a commodity, something you bought when needed, like garbage bags or a bus ticket. People are still part of the equation, but not like they used to be. The people who matter are no longer passionate participants, they are shareholders focused on the bottom line and see the future one quarter at a time.
Aviations future lies not with these modern aviators, for whom numbers and the latest gadgets matter most. It is an ember of hope sustained by scattered bands of grassroots aviators, like those Dick Starks writes about in his new book, Fokkers at Six Oclock.
It continues the saga begun in his first book, You Want to Build & Fly a What?, about his learning to fly, the construction of his VW-powered Nieuport replica, and the birth of Kansas City Dawn Patrol in 1985. Fokkers starts, more or less, with the Great Flood of 93, which inundated Liberty Landing International, a grassroots private strip about 15 miles northeast of Kansas City Downtown Airport and 20 miles east southeast of Kansas City International. It ends with the Starkss hauling their Morane to Canada in June 2008 for its role in the forthcoming movie, Amelia.
What makes these adventures, and all those in between, is the participants social connection. They genuinely care for each other (thats Dick on the left, with Mark Pierce, Dicks wife, Sharon, and Dick Lemons, who built the replica Fokker Triplane) and anyone else who shares their passion for stick and rudder flying. The stories Dick recounts are not about gadgets and numbers, but about the fun they had togetherin the air and on the ground.
All pilots have Walter Mitty dreams, but few have the courage to pursue them in a wide-awake world. Dick and his compatriots are courageous because they brave the judgment of their peers. You read this between the lines, when Dick talks about being a Trailer Weenie.
No matter the discomfort or inconvenience, real pilots fly to their destination. Dick and his buddies did that once, and the flight to Oshkosh from Kansas City in their light airplanes was enough. Now they drive their airplanes to where they want to fly, often an air show, like the annual World War I Dawn Patrol Rendezvous gathering at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton. Who among us wouldnt like to fly there at least once? Despite their unintentional shenanigans, the Air Force has asked the boys from KC back several times.
Without a doubt, when it comes to Dick and the gang, Im biased (and I wrote the backup forward, in case the one promised by a well known editor didnt arrive by press time). But not only because they are friends. But because they are the heart of aviation, aviators who have not lost their passion for the magic of flight. Each flight, even if its 10 minutes in the pattern, is an adventure they cant wait to begin. I used to feel that way, and I want to feel that way again.
Perhaps you feel the same way. If you do, get Dicks book. Remember, flying is mostly a mental activity, and Fokkers at Six Oclock will, if anything, put you in a good mood. And, for me, thats an important place to start. It sells for $18.95, cheaper than going to the movies and it lasts longer and is more satisfying. You can order it from Amazon.com, or www.dawnpatrol.org, which accepts credit card payments through PayPal. As a bonus, you get a free DVD, the homebrewed Introduction to the Dawn Patrol.
Its a good book of plain words that gives hope for the future of aviation, if we pilots will remember that the key to flying happiness is not gadgets and more speed, more power. Its people, its building an extended family of like-minded souls who havent forgotten the new pilots thrill of levitating skyward on magic wings of any sort. For reminding us of this important fact, we all owe the grassroots gang that lives on the pages of Fokkers at Six Oclock a debt of thanks. Scott Spangler