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… but I won’t hold my breath.
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