Flying the flag: What do aircraft mean to us?


A contemporary t-shirt design.from

The trenches of World War One were a little short on glamour. So propagandists looked skyward and set about creating the myth of the fighter pilot, and the fighter plane. A comparison to knights was compelling, and the idea caught on with the general public. King Arthur, and other tales of chivalry, were fashionable – and this, combined with a strong desire to see the War in noble terms, gave the myth of the fighter pilot a solid foundation.

Across the twentieth century many nations developed a special relationship with a particular aircraft of historical or symbolical importance. For British people the Spitfire symbolises heroism and the nation’s engineering prowess, for Russians the Ilyushin Il-2 conjures up ideas of honest perseverance in hellish conditions in defiance of a treacherous enemy, for many French people the Mirage series are seen as technological triumphs of a reborn nation. As well as heroes, there are villains: to the peace movement of the 1960s and 70s, the B-52 was emblematic of dangerous American Imperialism. Today, for anti-war protestors unmanned aircraft are a powerful symbol of a cowardly and one-sided form of warfare lacking accountability.

Then there are the martyrs, the cancelled aircraft. There are those that mourn the British TSR.2, the Canadian CF-105 Arrow and perhaps rather more sinisterly, the unmade aircraft projects of the Third Reich. These aircraft are an emotive subject, often beloved by patriotic individuals with a belief that their nation has declined from its glory days.

To a French nationalist Concorde symbolises what is great about France, to her British counterpart it says the same about Britain, to a pro-European it speaks of the greatness of European collaboration. This selective vision can also be seen in British accounts of the P-51, which tend to emphasis its British engine.


Though a sense of national identity is not necessarily bad in itself, it can often poison the well, and skew debate to the point of nonsense. The relative merits of modern fighters aircraft are extremely controversial subjects. Woe betide anyone who tells a certain kind of French aircraft enthusiast that the Rafale has any failings. Comparing F-16s and MiG-29s for an Indian or Pakistani audience is rarely going too end civilly. It is more common than not, for aviation enthusiasts to favour a mouth-frothing loyalty to a national aircraft over truth. 

Online aviation forums ooze with the toxicity of racism, and feelings of national superiority. With the added fizz that an interest in powerful war machines is often most attractive to those who feel weak in themselves.

Flying machines are wonderful and deserve more.

Personally, I would like to see the impossible: I would like to see the appreciation of aircraft cut off from the sickness of patriotism (and of course nationalism) … but I won’t hold my breath.


Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit
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  1. Jon Lake

    The ‘sickness of patriotism’? There’s nothing wrong with simple patriotism, with pride in one’s country. It’s xenophobia and aggressive nationalism that can be problematic. And there is a difference…..

    • Hush Kit

      Think I may be with Johnson or Bierce on this one! “Patriotism, n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name. In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit it is the first.” – he has a good line on patriots too.

      • Jon Lake

        Patriotism is simply the quality of being patriotic; of expressing (vigorous?) support for one’s country. As such whether or not patriotism is a sickness sort of depends what one is being patriotic to. There’s a massive difference between being patriotic to Sweden, today, say, and being patriotic to 1930s National Socialist Germany.

        Merriam Webster defines Patriotism as “love for or devotion to one’s country.”

        And this is what underpins military service. Love of country and society, and a desire to defend it is the quality that has driven many of the aviators who we admire, respect and read about, and the vast majority of those whose names we never really hear – including the 55,000 Bomber Command dead in the Second World War, for example. And every Eagle who fell in the Battle of Britain. It’s a simple and often admirable quality and ethos.

        It is not the same as Nationalism.

        It is not the same as Jingoism.

        It is not the same as Xenophobia.

        It is not even inherently conservative or right wing. The New Statesman said that: “Standing up to the multinationals and banks, nationalising and protecting core industries, progressively taxing the mega-wealthy, returning tax credits to those who need them, protecting the public sector, backing open-minded trade unions that fight for the rights of hard-working people, confronting a housing crisis that hurts millions, backing all those vulnerable souls being bullied in the name of “austerity”, dealing with the social cleansing/gentrification of London – this is patriotism if your definition of a country is its citizens and its culture.”

        And you can be patriotic about some elements of your country’s past (or present) without wanting to praise, support or excuse its every deed and action.

        I have a patriotic pride in the England that abolished the slave trade. In the England that introduced universal suffrage. In the England that fought against German militarism in 1914-18 and the England that struggled against the evils of Nazism, fascism and totalitarian communism in WWII and the Cold War. In the England that established the welfare state. In the England that created the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Faces. The England that provided Jimi Hendrix with his opportunity to soar. Etc.

        Ironically, though, it is the left wing pseuds and internationalists who perhaps have the most to be proud of who most bridle at patriotism. George Orwell wrote that: “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.”

        And personally I’d favour Orwell’s views over those of a 19th Century American (who’d want to be patriotic about that era’s America?) or even those of an 18th Century Englishman……

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