With the passing of General Chuck Yeager late last year, America didn’t just lose a supersonic pioneer, we lost a symbol of an entire generation, the one defined in large part by World War II and our coming together as a country to defeat the rise of fascism on the European Continent and in the Pacific. To many pilots, Chuck Yeager was the face of that victory, of that generation, which journalist, author and historian Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” in his book by that same title. The real story is far more complicated than that, of course, as it always is with tales of heroes. Look no further than the history of the Tuskegee Airmen squadron for proof of that. That’s the nature of the American Experiment.
But if World War II helped shape progress in so many social, cultural and economic ways, making us what we are now, it needs to be asked: With the World War II generation now largely gone, what becomes of aviation with this generational changing of the guard?
I’d be lying if I were to say that I had the names of the generations straight in my head. I don’t. Gen-Xers were, of course, the generation that followed Baby Boomers, like many of us. After that are probably the millennials, but I’d have to look it up, and, frankly, when it comes to flying, it just doesn’t matter. Vne is Vne no matter what the birth year or astrological sign.
When I was a kid, adults regularly uttered some version of, “Kids are different today.” Same thing’s true today. And in aviation, because our circumstances are so precarious, one might be tempted to ask, “Can we trust the youth of today to be the guardians of the legacy of this most amazing activity and all that it encompasses?”
“Can we trust them with our planes, especially given that so many of these planes have far outlived their intended lifespans, though with lack of any life limits on these planes—who figured we’d be living in a world in which there were 15,000-hour Skyhawks—they just keep flying?”
“And can we trust them with our precious warbirds, these astonishingly complex and expensive-to-maintain artifacts of our shared history, artifacts that are unlike anything else in the world that I can think of, because a big part of their beauty and value is that so many of them continue not just to exist but to fly?” (So reup your EAA membership and donate your time and support to organizations like the Commemorative Air Force, that keep these planes flying.)
Perhaps most importantly, can we trust young people to keeping us pilots flying, that is, actually getting into airplanes, and going and doing things in them? Without that, the kind of aviation that we care so much about ceases to exist.
So it might surprise you to learn that my answer to all of those questions is not just, “Yes,” but, “Hell, yes.”
The all too common complaint in aviation about young people, that they aren’t as passionate about flying as their elders are, is flat-out wrong.
How do I know? Well, if you keep your ear to the Tik-Tok and Instagram annals of young life, you’ll discover that young people are insanely involved with aviation, way more, in fact, than kids in my generation were. Kids today have the added advantage of virtually unlimited resources online. I never flew a circle-to-land approach to JFK in a thunderstorm at night, but if I wanted to do that right now, thanks to Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, I could. And it would be intensely realistic. And lots and lots of kids are doing things just like that. The ones who love airplanes really love airplanes, and they know exactly who Chuck Yeager was and is, and why he matters.
And these young aviators have another added advantage: community. In an age when older folks bemoan the loss of community, the irony in the aviation world is that it’s never been better. A young pilot has a tough time getting over the hump to solo, so he posts that he’s frustrated and thinking of hanging up his headset for good. In many of these groups he’ll typically be greeted with dozens of admonitions to “hang in there!” Other group members will relate similar stories. A few days or weeks later, the original poster will report back that he successfully soloed, to huzzahs all around. Kids today are different. They have tools and they have awesome support.
As we start 2021, we face enormous challenges as a nation and as a community. None of those challenges have anything to do with the kids who are already there, maybe in the right seat of an RJ, or helping a slightly younger kid understand the intricacies of steep turns and DME arcs, ferrying an airplane from past owner or training to be a naval aviator or, just maybe, an astronaut. They are, you know, flying.
And they’re not doing it because they’re good Samaritans. They’re there because they’re as crazy about flying as we were. Let there be no doubt. We’re in excellent hands.
One day, they will be, too.