Blogs by Kalikiano Kalei
Passing the Torch
3/6/2008 7:50:43 PM
For me, part of the joy of aviation is passing on an awareness of the joy of flight to younger generations. As a frequent participant in air shows, attending as a representative of my air museum, I have many opportunities to interact with kids who have attended the shows with their parents. While many of them may be just hyperactive 'lookie-looies', there are usually a handful who give clear indications they are not only seriously interested in the world of flight, but capable of fulfilling all the tough and demanding criteria required to reach that goal in today's world. You may never know whether or not the kid who is asking all those astute questions about the physics of flight will be on the next Mars Mission, but it's always a possibility.
Passing the Torch
Life is endlessly interesting only when your heart and soul are free to explore the limits of the possible. The possibilities sometimes seem infinite, buoyed up by hope and faith that a superior state of existence is achievable beyond the usual boring muddle of concerns that seems to obtain most of the time. This is the operating spiritual mechanism that underlies just about every aspect of meaningful, actualised human life, in my opinion, and certainly all of the higher functions of the well-reflected life. It is the foundational source for all human actions and interactions with the physical and spiritual world, including the basic matrix of concepts that comprise religious belief in a higher existence beyond mortal life. It may also serve as a platform on which to foster small increments of personal fulfillment, those often minute but illuminating feats of personal accomplishment that arise from explorations into the deeper, darker and less understandable outer regions of the human experience.
One of my personal sources of spiritual renewal is flight, that eternal human yearning to fly machines through the air like a bird. To more mundane, unimaginative and earth-bound souls, it is often difficult at best to put this feeling into a meaningful context capable of being grasped by people who are not similarly oriented. The challenges implicit in trying to do so, however, are usually both rewarding and meaningful.
Although my active duty military aviation days are far behind me, I actively maintain my association with flight--whether military, civilian, or space-related--in various ways. This past weekend I flew off to an airshow, leaving the boards racked for the weekend. Although one of the smaller shows (perhaps a thousandth of the size of the annual zoo-like gathering of the flight-faithful at Oshkosh), it is a combination fly-in, aerial demonstration, and congregation of aviation-minded people from all over. With a strong circus/carnival like quality to the whole affair, it isn’t hard to imagine the spiritual ties that a modern-day airshow has with the barnstorming circuits of biplanes in the early days of flight (1930s, in particular). This particular airshow was principally for warbirds (for those of you not familiar with the term, a “warbird” is a former military aircraft). As always, there were various venders selling a mix of aviation-related souvenirs, greasy foods, ice cream, and everything you could imagine that is evenly faintly associated with the world of aviation. Out on the ramp, a line-up of former military aircraft are parked, most having flown in from their home bases for the event. Small knots of pilots and their friends cluster here and there, ‘hanger-flying’ and exuberantly sharing big lies and small ones with each other as part of the fun. It’s a boisterous, lively, but yet not at all rowdy atmosphere, since to be a pilot and fly, you need to have a very good sense of personal discipline and a well-honed awareness of the profound differences between right behavior (fly by the rules and live to fly another day) and wrong (make even a single serious mistake and you are just so much carbonized matter at the bottom of a deep, smoking hole). For the most part there is a deeply held and enthusiastically shared sense of easy camaraderie, characteristic of the flying crowd, that obtains throughout the entire day.
For me one of the most satisfying activities at airshows, aside from the actual flying, is reaching out to spark an interest in aviation on the part of kids who are attending the show with their parents. Children (of all ages) these days are so dreadfully withdrawn into their boring little adolescent circles of peer group preoccupations that awareness of anything beyond their immediate vanities simply isn’t of interest. They are so sated with vapid pop-culture music and saturated with the material products of commercial ‘youth culture’ lifestyle exploitation, that anything having to do with culture, history, civilisation, or society prior to their birth has little meaning to them and consequently offers no excitement or challenge to their already dulled imaginations. While the problem here is the direct result of our modern (read ‘American’) culture, with its stupefying material superfluities, the causative sources of this mental and spiritual malaise are beyond the scope of my reflections. The practical reality is quite often that you have a bunch of bored kids being dragged by their parents to an airshow that they really aren’t sure will be all that fun. The challenge offered is the same that it ideally is in teaching: to open the adolescent mind and expand its understanding (to give wings to thoughts, if you will).
Since I have never had any children of my own, and having lost my own father at the age of 4, I suppose I have a special sensitivity to this perplexing subject and that might explain the satisfaction that I gain from witnessing a small spark of interest in a child’s mind perhaps kindle the wider future life possibilities that aviation offers.
With a specialised background in aerospace medicine and altitude physiology, joined together in a pursuit of human factors research and life support sciences, I occasionally come to the airshows with exhibits of aviation museum technology artifacts to serve as visual displays of public interest. These objects (things like aircraft ejection seats, flight helmets, oxygen breathing systems, ‘space suits’, etc.) help draw airshow visitors to us out of curiosity. As a member of the board of directors for the air museum in question, I try to see to it that flight simulators are brought out to set up at the airshows, since this gives kids a chance to actually sit in the cockpit of an aircraft and see what it’s like to be a pilot. Sometimes that’s all it takes, though, to spark that little flame of interest.
While aviation in previous eras was historically a male-dominated area of occupational activity, this has all changed radically as western society gradually achieves a more egalitarian outlook on the respective roles of men and women in modern society (there’s still LOTS of resistance, but at least there are now clear signs the status quo is changing). At the present time, the possibilities for women in the world of aerospace are opening up like never before. There are now women commercial pilots, women astronauts, and in the military, even women combat pilots. As the old constraints of sexist bias gradually start to gradually fall away (one of the few really encouraging things about modern western civilisation), the fulfillments and rewards of aviation are now almost as fully open to women as they have always been to men. Thus, while it is a wonderful thing to see an interest in flying shine in the eyes of a boy, it is even more rewarding to see a little girl appear to take an interest in these formerly all-male things.
Some of the girls can really surprise you, too, such as one little gal did a few months ago. A little blonde tyke of about 11, she sat in our F-101B fighter cockpit simulator eyeing the instruments and controls very seriously as if she were about to fly off somewhere at any moment. Without batting an eye, she subsequently started asking complicated questions involving basic physics (such as “How is the Mach meter calibrated?”, and “What is the speed of sound?”). After I had briefly explained the concept to her, she immediately picked up the pace with further questions based on information I had just given her (“How does altitude change the speed of sound?”, “Where does space begin?”, etc.). Here was a kid who could really go somewhere in aerospace with a little carefully managed encouragement and proctoring! Fortunately, her mother and father were both keenly interested in aviation and space flight and appeared to have the basic intellectual resources to encourage such a child responsibly. When I asked her if she had given any thought about what she wanted to do in life, without missing a beat, she said “I’d like to become a NASA astronaut.” Here potentially was the next Sally Ride, Eileen Collins, or Judy Resnik, and it gave me a good feeling to see the obvious earnestness of this expressed wish on her face at the tender age of 11 years.
Of course, part of the fun of being at airshows is also people watching—something that has always been a source of substantial personal amusement and interest to me as long as I can remember. Since I share ‘Peanuts’ cartoon strip creator Charles Schultz’s outlook on humanity (“I love mankind; it’s people that I can’t stand”), I am at times a rather overly critical observer of my fellow humankind who is often less than sympathetic with supposedly ‘mature’ individuals I run across (I should have a tattoo on my butt that says “Je ne souffre pas des imbéciles heureusement”, I guess). This weekend proved to be no exception to the rule that wherever people congregate, at least 65% of them should probably not be let out of the house without a chaperone (or ‘keeper’). I was particularly struck by the fact that while a disproportionate number of both men and women were what a medical person would qualify as ‘grossly overweight’; an equally great number were in fact ‘morbidly overweight’. Both men and women fell equally into both categories, in terms of obviously being prone to eating too much (you can’t blame genetics for all those hugely overstuffed bodies walking around).
Other things were also noticeable, one of the most obvious being the greatly increased evidence of tattooing, body piercing, and others signs of self-disregard. Still other trends evident included the still popular low-cut jeans fad, wherein young women (and older ones who should know better) with far too much body fat insist on letting their bulgy bodies droop over the top of their skimpy jeans rather unappealingly (when were folds of unhealthy fat ever fashionable, except in Rubens’ era and before?). Almost universal was the tank-top that deliberately doesn’t hide bra-straps, which I personally don’t find sexy at all, but a clear indication of an artless, tacky, and low-class sense of personal taste. By and large, I was taken by the great number of what I would call ‘average sacks of potatoes’ walking around the airshow and a bit sad that there weren’t more strikingly handsome women in evidence to keep us jocks alert and interested as the day wore on.
There were a couple of gorgeous gals on hand, here and there, but not as many as one might expect and it seemed as if every time a particularly interesting aircraft was flying over, one of these babes would saunter by us, necessitating a quick and divertive visual shift to track on her course. Meanwhile the aircraft in view above would have just finished performing a particular interesting maneuver, which the babe’s passage caused us to miss completely! You hang around pilots and aviation people long enough and you quickly learn that their enthusiasm for flight and flying is only exceeded by their interest in a fair specimen of the opposite gender. That seems to be one thing that never changes in aviation, no matter how much the technology or the ‘new’ attitudes appear to evolve. Very few ‘sissy-boys’ in aviation, it would seem.
I guess this introduces a paradox in terms of my own subjective circumstances, since while as an old UC Berkeley grad I have long since been brought up to regard woman as the full equals of men in most things, I am still subject to the basic biological rules that govern all species of beasts; most of the aviation people I hang with are not quite as complicated. They may admire the lovely ladies, but there’s no way they’d ever tolerate having a woman flying left seat (to you non-aviation types, in an aircraft with a pilot and co-pilot, the “left seat’ always refers to the pilot—or aircraft commander) in any airplane they flew. As I see it, I’d as soon jump in the sack with a capable and proficient lady flier as I would respect her rights in the air. No mattahs odare, brah.
This calls to mind a worthwhile read I finished recently. One of the first generation of Space Shuttle astronauts (that is, the new generation of astronauts that followed the Apollo moon program) named Richard M. Mullane recently authored a book titled ‘Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut’. Mullane, who prefers to be known as ‘Michael Mullane’ (presumably because as a military flier, he couldn’t stand having to endure being called ‘Dick’ by his ‘jock’ flying buddies), takes about 360 pages to entertain us with the complete inside account of what it was like to work for NASA in the 70s and 80s, as part of an Earth-orbiting shuttle crew. Mullane, a ‘self-described’ girl-shy, geeky nerd in school, comes across as a completely stereotyped gung-ho male military guy in the book. Through the course of the book he gradually undergoes a transformation from the basic male view that every woman is fair game as a potential bed-partner, to the point where he fully accepts the fact that women can also be very close friends, as well as sex-objects (he was secretly in love with deceased astronaut Judy Resnik, but eventually learned to value her as a highly skilled and competent associate). The book is quite often a bit raunchy, always iconoclastic, and frankly revealing of the less-happy inner workings of ‘NASA the establishment’, but it does provide much general hilarity and Mullane’s sense of humor keeps it all together. Throughout most of it, Mullane takes off the kid gloves and exposes NASA’s less than squeaky clean PR hype for what it is: high grade horse exhaust, but with a trace or two of occasional nobility mixed into the droppings.
At any rate, I spent a good part of the day near our aircraft, talking to visitors, explaining aircraft technology to them, and lifting excited kids in and out of the cockpit simulator all day. After 8 hours of standing there in the blazing sun, wearing a hot flight suit and talking constantly, you tend to get a little wilted (not to mention soaked with sweat). Fortunately, the smaller water bottles fit perfectly into the right upper thigh pocket on the standard CWU-27/P flightsuit so I kept taking slugs of H20 off and on all day to stay hydrated.
The air show itself was great, with a number of the older warbirds present (biplanes, WWII favorites like the P-51 Mustang, a rare F4U Corsair or two, legions of T-6s and SNJs, and even a few Russian Yaks). Believe me, even as a ‘blowtorch’ guy who’s been around jets most of my life, there’s still nothing that beats the throaty roar of a P-51 or Corsair, flat-hatting the runway at high speed. It was quite fulfilling, as always, to make meaningful contact with some of the kids who might actually want to make aviation a career, and hanger-flying (talking about aviation with your flying buddies) is always lots of fun. There were just enough drop-dead beautiful women present to make the sun and summer heat slightly less oppressive (you quickly forget the heat and sun as that familiar old biological urge faithfully clicks on, like an autopilot on standby) and make up for all the drab, ordinary, and physically unattractive people coursing through the area (Yeah, I know, I guess I’m deep down just as shallow as the next guy when it comes to babes—despite all my lifelong egalitarian, anti-sexist training).
Finally, however, the show was over and the last flight ended. Shortly thereafter, we folded up the tent (so to speak), got everything in order, stowed our gear, did the preflight after taking a quick drink at the Jet-A trough (refueled), and spooled up the engines for a normal departure vector homewards.
The sun was setting when we reached assigned cruise altitude. It was deep shade of golden red, just like it typically is on the island. A different perspective, seeing the sunset from 30,000 feet, than that one usually views on the beach, but still awfully pretty. And there’s nothing like it ( think) to remind us that we are all fellow inhabitants of this increasingly ever more crowded bit of congealed stellar dust called planet Earth. Not sure about my left seater’s outlook on this subject, but it sure gave me pause to reflect for a long moment or two.
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