Watching airplanes

A few years ago I had to pick my wife up at the airport and I neglected to check on the flight status.  After parking, I hustled into the terminal only to find that her flight was delayed by not quite an hour.  Not long enough to leave and do something else, but too long to sit idly in the terminal building.  Then I remembered what we used to do when I was a kid.

I grew up in a small town, not terribly small but certainly not large.  We had an airport which was served by one regularly scheduled airline using a turboprop plane with three or four flights each day.  Of course there were the general aviation flights as well.  In those quaint, long ago times, folks would actually go to the airport just to watch the airline arrive and take off.  My family did.  When I was a teenager, we used to go there and park at the end of the runway.  Sometimes we would idly dream about where the plane could take us, exotic journeys to far off places.  A generation or two earlier, I guess we would have gone to the train depot for the same reason.  Small town boredom.  The thrill of the possible.  The highest technology that we could actually see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. All the unimaginable possibilities of a world that seemed very large.

In those days, people dressed in formal clothes to go on a trip.  I remember men in coats and ties wearing hats, women in long dresses wearing gloves, all clambering up the steps to the airplane door.  No t-shirts and short pants in those days, no siree.

So years later, waiting for my wife, I decided to take the stairs to the top floor of the terminal — a parking lot — and watch the planes.  I found a good spot, by the railing, close to the edge, and was entertained watching all the airliners land, takeoff, taxi hither and yon, trucks and baggage carts scurrying busily about. 

And after a few minutes, guess what?  A visit from the airport security people.  Seems I had attracted their attention on the surveillance cameras. A little embarrassed, I explained what I was doing up there.  The two young men in uniform were visibly amused to hear an old guy explain that when he was young people actually went to the airport just to watch the planes take off and land.  They decided I was harmless but advised me to go back into the terminal and watch through the windows. 

How times have changed.  I travel on airlines too much these days.  I get to go in the “experienced traveler” TSA line.  My frequent flier cards runneth over.  And all the excitement has gone out of travel.  Now it is merely a hassle; get to the airport early, follow all the rules, check in, go through security with all its indignities, get stuck in a small seat with minimal service, land, and hope my bag made it with me.  No excitement here.  No thrill. No romance.

Somehow we have sucked all the romance and excitement out of air travel — or travel of any kind. 

And you know, it is a kind of magic.  Just sit down, read a book or a magazine, watch a movie, or take a nap and in just a short time you are hundreds or thousands of miles from home.  No real effort required on your part, just sit there. 

It is a kind of magic.

Many people tell me that space travel is not exciting.  They listen to presentations concerning the most exciting explorations of our times which are delivered in monotone voices with incomprehensible and complex graphics.  Somehow, we have sucked the excitement and romance out of space travel. 

But it really an extraordinary kind of magic. 

So if you are present at one of those boring, incomprehensible, utterly pedestrian talks about exploring space — don’t sit there!  Don’t let the magic get paved over with boredom!  Get up on your feet and shout the speaker off the lectern!  Don’t let the dull and boring smother the what space travel truly is: exotic, thrilling, exciting, romantic, and magical!  This is too important to sit back and let the dreams die; don’t let the young people grow up without dreams.

14 thoughts on “Watching airplanes”

  1. Wayne: Thanks for the inspiration! Next time I’m giving a talk, I’ll try to infuse more of the magic in it.

  2. “A kind of magic” is one of the taglines for the Highlander film/TV franchise. 😉 In response to a challenge, I once started writing a fanfic concerning a pair of Immortals traveling to Saturn (being that they are ideally suited as deep space astronauts). I wrote a scene where they landed on Enceladus to refuel with water from a subsurface ocean, while looking up at the truly surreal sight of a crescent Saturn, bisected by the wafer-thin rings…. (Okay, yeah, I was inspired by the Tsien in “2010”.) Alas, I never finished it. Someone else beat me to the challenge with a humorous piece about the same two Immortals changing their mind about going into space after a rather stereotypical geek from NASA explained to them just how inhospitable other worlds really are. I haven't thought much about that experience in years, but your post brought it back.

    The magic of space exploration, versus the harsh reality of just how difficult it is….. I think some folks grow up playing astronaut, but then learn how expensive it is and how harsh the other worlds are, and decide that it's a fool's dream. It doesn't help that there's this stereotype that space is for hopeless nerds, not poets and artists. Yet many poets and artists *have* flown. Just look at Alan Bean and Alexei Leonov. Maybe we need to do more to let people know about them.

    Here's a good article about Alan Bean's paintings:

  3. Hi Wayne — I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts, and this one struck me personally, too. Spaceflight should *always* be magic… should *always* be exciting… and above all, should always be the stuff that dreams are made of.

    I know that, when I worked with you in the MCC, that’s the way it felt to me.

    We need to make it feel that way again…

  4. A quote of interest:

    It will free man from the remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet.
    Wernher von Braun

  5. Tokyo airport has a viewing area & holes in the fence for photographing. Quite a difference in attitude towards aereospace.

  6. Tokyo airport has a viewing area & holes in the fence for photographing. Quite a difference in attitude towards aereospace.

  7. Man, you’re too much like myself, a dinosaur! I remember watching the Super Connies, DC-9s and DC-3s pass over my parents house when I was a kid, and yes, on Sundays when my father wasn’t working his turn in the mill he’d take me and my sister to the Allegheny County Airport to watch the planes. It was special when a B-58 Hustler or other military jet would pass over.

    Back then, Greater Pittsburgh Airport had an observation platform, and people would come just to watch the planes…nowadays, there is no observation deck, only the “landside” and “airside” parts of the terminal, connected by an underground tube!

    15 years ago, I had to go to Mason City, Iowa. It’s famous for being the crash site of the “day the music died”. There was an immaculate Lockheed Electra parked there, and I wondered how much the owner would want to take me to Minneapolis.

    My late father worked on B-17s in the war…somehow that unmistakable sound they make is ingrained in my DNA, and I stop whatever it is I’m doing when my ears pick up that sound.

    Steam locomotives, piston-engined aircraft, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles…they all do something special for your soul. Flying commercially today is as much fun as riding a bus!

    Space travel isn’t exciting to a lot of people because they have no love for machines, let alone a machine of the Space Shuttle’s complexity. They can’t grasp it! It’s a symphony all its own!

    A few posts ago, you mentioned how the engine bells flex as the engines fire…that’s real power at work, and the engineers who designed them and the men who construct them understand that power of that magnitude is not to be taken lightly, nor for granted.

    That’s why I wish that NASA would take a cue from your fast automotive neighbors in Daytona and offer something similar to NASCAR’s “TrackPass”. One of my favorite YouTube videos is the one that shows what it’s like inside the cockpit during liftoff.

    Myself, I’m an instrument “geek”, and I’d love to be able to watch the “spread monitor” that monitors the rate-of-rise and temperature differentials between the various temperature sensors on the TPS during re-entry. Call it an “artifact” from my gas turbine days. Old habits are hard to break. I’d love to be able to watch the WLE data as well, but you can’t have everything (wink).

  8. Wayne,
    I too used to watch the planes at the local general aviation airport in my youth, experiencing the excitement you describe. Much later in life – perhaps ten years ago – when my weekend bicycle route led me past a different local airport I would ring the doorbell at the tower and be let in to chat with the staff high up the steps. Today, ringing that bell probably would not result in some random stranger being admitted upstairs.

    I am not thoroughly convinced that there is less excitement for spaceflight amongst today.s youth than there was about aviation back when you and I were kids. But assuming there is, I suspect one reason might be because the average person doesn.t get to see spaceflight with their own eyes. My wife and I are am accumulating frequent flyer miles faster than either one of us can redeem them for free flights to vacation destinations , yet I have never seen a rocket launch. Much less have I flown on a spacecraft.

    When I grew up virtually every kid in a modest size town could either bike to an airfield or at least be taken to one by his dad within a few short hour.s drive to marvel at the annual air show. And for a few bucks more, an affordable amount for sure, that same kid could experience a short flight above town.

    If there is less excitement for spaceflight than there was for aviation and trains before them, it is because even the best presenter and the most stunning high-def DVD cannot hold a candle to the exhilaration and sense of possibilities experienced in hearing the engine of even the most modest Cessna 150 taking off just yards over your head.

    You may ask why if I would enjoy seeing a launch have I never taken the trip down to Florida. Time has become more limited than it was when I lingered for hours outside that airfield.s fence. Taking vacation days to attend an event that may be rescheduled by days or weeks at a moment.s notice becomes difficult.

    As I am writing this I realize that this is silly. I am taking some time off to attend a shuttle launch and if there is a scrub so be it. Not like there will be a great many more launches. Looks like the closest spot from where you can watch a launch is 10km from the pad and you need to know somebody at NASA to even get those tickets. I wonder if watching a launch at that range is still worthwhile or if all you will see is an ascending bright dot far off in the distance. 10km sounds mighty far for viewing any man-made object.

    Be that as it may, Johnny and Jill will get excited about spaceflight when they can see that spaceship take off with their own eyes. Perhaps someday, they all will get to see a launch within driving distance of their parents. home. I don.t expect to be around by then, but those few that went out to Kitty Hawk to view the Wright Brothers probably weren.t around to watch Johnny leaning his bike against the rusty chain link fence to watch the Cessnas overhead.

  9. I’m 35 and I still remember going to see planes take off and land at Heathrow airport when I was a young boy. I grew up in a seaside town on the south coast, so it must’ve been a day trip of some kind or other.

    During my placement year at university I lived under the flight path for Heathrow and my job sometimes led me to take the bus between Hayes and Feltham which led to passing right through the hangars. Once I was sat at the front on the top deck of the bus as it was first at the barrier in the queue of traffic while they rolled Concorde past. I’ll never forget the majesty of that plane up close.

    Now, after having emigrated to the USA a dozen years ago, I still get a thrill from the planes overhead as they come on final approach to San Jose airport – they pass right overhead as I walk to the train in the morning. Their bright colours are reflected in the office building windows, a vivid splash.

    The oppressiveness of overzealous security guards are a bigger part of denying those dreams that most people credit, I think. The day civilians can sign up to visit the moon, I’ll be there. I haven’t had the adventurer in me muzzled just yet.

  10. I always enjoy reading your posts, and I have to say this one made me chuckle a bit. For those of us who still rely on turboprop planes (I live in a small town in northern California), these planes are not so romantic! Especially when the wind kicks up and you feel like you will be tossed out of the sky.

    But I wholeheartedly agree that we’ve got to make space travel more exciting, especially for the younger generations.

  11. We live next to Moffett Field and my 2 year old son always becomes very excited when a plane flys overhead, he yells “Fei Ji!” (airplane in Mandarin, since he’s half Chinese). We always run outside when we here the roar of a group of F-18s visiting the airfield, and he’s always asking to watch airplane videos on Youtube, but he seems to prefer prop driven war birds to jets. I hope we can see a Shuttle launch before it’s retirement, if not I expect an Ares V launch is going to be something to see and hear.

  12. I remember going to the airport when the DC-3s were in service. I’ve ridden in Martin 404s and Convair-liners, C-46s, C-47s, and C-54s. That’s when flying was noisy, smelly, and uncomfortable – and more fun than I could imagine.

  13. I can relate about watching airplanes. I live in Las Vegas and we have a observation parking lot that is situated right next to the runway at McCarren. You can also tune your radio to listen to air traffic control. Each time I sit there, I am continually in awe of the technology that these giant birds represent. I never get tired of watching them and will never take for granted all the amazing strides that have been made in flight and aerospace.

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