I get it. Some people find aircraft and aviation all-consuming and fascinating. They cream their keks over the physics of it all. The turbines, the atmospheric pressures and gravitational forces at work on the fuselage at speed and altitude. The engineering and science that made it possible to send tons and tons of metal into the sky and keep it there – and even control it to get from A to B without incident (eventually). All this progress within, what, 30 years of the 20th century? Yes, it’s staggering. Yes, there is beauty and wonder in it all. But that’s what makes the whole nerd thing a bit weird to me: it’s all entirely subjective.
I love to look at aircraft as aesthetic pieces. Creatures, if you like – each with a humble, unquestioning work ethic – that reluctantly took their forms to serve a higher purpose. Sleek or lumbering, monolithic or slight and nimble – all had their origins in human agendas. Agendas like ‘being the first’, ‘puffing chests out to potential enemies’, and if we’re lending humanity any faith: ‘to discover what’s possible and improve life on earth’.
Pipes and clap
I’ll quite happily shuffle around a museum and look at engines, cockpits and pretend payloads, and gasp at the size of wings. I’ll readily read the stories of the scientists and test pilots who, albeit under the wagging finger of wealthy governments, put their lives on the line for progress. I love to imagine myself born into those innocent, pioneering times, and I wish we could still gather at air shows with hampers and pipes and clap at the achievements that fly by.
What I don’t get, is the obsession. The submersion, the insatiable thirst to know everything about a particular model – its inner workings, how much it weighs, how much its riveted panels shrink or expand in extreme environments. Why Jerry ‘Kettle-Face’ Johnson insisted on wearing ladies’ underwear on every third testing mission he flew from Edwards Air Force base after 13 December 1974 (or some insist, 22 January the following year).
Nor do I understand why those afflicted with such passion (in its true sense – i.e. emotionally driven madness) think you’re a weirdo and a heretic if you’re not wearing a flak jacket, baseball cap and oversize training shoes laced up way too tight – and don’t spend at least ten minutes at every exhibit, rocking back and forth with your hands behind your back.
Sure, for some, there is greater meaning and emotional attachment to a lost era. Lost colleagues, the tension of the Cold War, the reality behind the TV soap, Vietnam. But I don’t want to feel guilt or inadequacy for just looking at aircraft and being bowled over for my own inexplicable reasons. Reasons I wouldn’t want to decipher or disseminate through deeper knowledge, because that often spoils the wonder. We can’t yet explain love, and hopefully we never will. And often, when you nail something to the floor, it withers and dies. Our appreciation for beauty and awe is only common in the language we use to express it, which will never be sufficient. Evocative, maybe. But defining? No.
The end of an affair?
So stop it. Stop it at once. Empty your study of all the literature you’ve amassed in your pursuit of what will essentially be the end of your love affair: defining why you’ve amassed them in the first place. Erase your hard drive of all but the images and schematic diagrams that simply inspire you, and leave it at that. Put your hands up in the air, and shout, ‘I don’t know why, I just fucking love B-52s, and I don’t care who knows my knowledge on the matter is incomplete!’
I went to Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona – and its boneyard – in 2010. I’m not an aviation enthusiast; I just know that some aircraft, up close, move me in mysterious ways. I don’t need to know why, or chase that feeling down – it’s enough in itself. I bought a coffee mug that says, ‘I love the smell of jet fuel in the morning’ and moved on.
Perhaps some people thrive on obsession – but the ones I’ve met didn’t look too good on it.
By George Caveney musician, writer, cynic and firefighter.