:: December 2012 Letter ::
The Twentieth Century was shaped by aviation. Individual lives, even when they had nothing directly to do with airlines, aircraft or aerospace, show a fascinating interaction with the growth of one of the world’s most important industries. As my father’s life enters its final phase (as his doctors say), I look back at how his life was framed by aircraft, even if he didn’t have much to do with them.
Lou Aboulafia was born to an immigrant family living in a cold water walk-up flat in Harlem. His first trip outside New York was on a large converted passenger liner, the Carnarvon Castle, taking elements of the 78th Lightning division to Europe. Before he ever flew in a plane, my dad saw the future of aerospace. Exiting a troop train in Belgium on December 11, 1944, he heard and saw a V-1 flying bomb overhead. A few weeks later, while cleaning his rifle, he heard another V-1’s engine (he says it sounded like a motorcycle) cut off while directly overhead. He said the Shema Yisrael, which is what a Jew says when he thinks a bomb is about to fall on him. But the V-1, a primitive cruise missile with wings, kept gliding and hit elsewhere.
My dad knew that first V-1 was headed to Liege, a rail hub, targeted by the Germans in an effort to disrupt allied logistics. These V-1s represented modern asymmetric warfare, something militaries use when they can’t fight on equal terms. He only once saw a German aircraft; it was alone and not particularly aggressive.
Yet even with Allied air dominance, nobody thought of calling in tactical air power. The infantryman of 1944 had almost no hope of calling in an air strike. There was minimal coordination between ground and air forces. The high-capacity tactical platforms, precision targeting systems, GPS-guided munitions and elaborate communications networks all came much later. But my dad knew what air power meant. He once saw a fleet of what he thought was a thousand Flying Fortresses fly overhead, on their way to Germany. “Give ‘em hell!,” he and his fellow soldiers yelled. This, of course, was a boost to morale. He knew that the enemy didn’t control the air. And that meant the enemy would lose.
A few months later, my dad had the pleasure of “enjoying” his first ride in an airplane, at age 19. It took him to the UK after he was shot in Hurtgen Forest. Medevac was a laborious process involving German POW stretcher bearers, a truck ride, and then finally a C-47 with horizontal canvas berths. Today, Medevac involves an HH-60L with onboard medical equipment that rivals what the finest hospitals had in 1944. This means a much higher ratio of wounded to killed in today’s battles, a development that has paradoxically made the wars of the last decade more politically feasible. He finished the war with another distant glimpse of aerospace. He was a waiter in a US military base in Britain when the atom bomb blew up, eliminating any danger of him getting killed in an invasion of Japan.
After the war, my dad got married, and thanks to the GI Bill, the growth of the middle class, and the postwar development of the civil airline industry, he could actually afford to take his first voluntary plane flight for his honeymoon. He and his wife, Mildred, went to Miami from Idlewild. It was February in New York, and a few hours later, for the first time in his life, he was in a tropical part of the world. It was 1951, so he probably went there in a Douglas DC-6 or a Lockheed Constellation. Today we might fly that route in a quiet, efficient twinjet that cost a fraction (in inflation-adjusted dollars) of what he paid for a ride in a slower, noisier, smokier quadprop. Yet the growth of mass tourism, cheap and frequent plane travel, and the inevitable homogenization of many parts of the world mean we’ve lost the sense of wonder he enjoyed when he touched down in Miami. “I thought it was heaven,” he told me. The past is a foreign country.
The new postwar large middle class didn’t think much about plane travel at first. That’s hardly surprising since tickets still cost a small fortune, and many of them, like my dad, regarded plane travel as an oddity. It was another few decades before he got to fly again. But in 1970, when he married my mother, Molly, they honeymooned in Hawaii, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. Like many Americans, he went from poverty to a glimpse of jet-set luxury in the space of a few decades.
Growing up in suburbia in the ‘70s and ‘80s meant that jet travel gradually went from exotic to routine. As a family we took just one international trip together (regular European travel was for rich people). Yet I was sent on a European tour as a teenager, and by the time I got to college it was the age of People Express, so even backpackers like me could get to Europe. I went to London for grad school, and when my parents visited, it was my dad’s first trip there since the war.
As my dad joined the AARP crowd, plane travel became the humdrum commodity that we know today. In the late 1990s Southwest began serving Islip, which had the usual “Southwest Effect” of stimulating traffic in the area, and my dad became a very frequent flyer. Like many people, he’d come to regard the drive down the I-95 as a dreadful slog, and he was happy to find a cheap air alternative. We’ve gotten used to bus travel with wings but consider the ramifications. Every day the equivalent of a 737 full of people is killed in car accidents on roads in the US. Southwest competes with the family car, as they like to say, and they’ve never had an onboard fatality. That’s one of the most virtuous forms of progress we’ve seen in transportation.
Recently, my dad took what will likely be his last plane ride, to live with my sister in Scottsdale. It was on an A320 flown by a US carrier, which is yet another sign of progress. A few decades ago only a lunatic would buy a foreign car. In 1985, my parents found themselves, shockingly, willing and able to buy a Honda. Similarly, the idea of free trade in aircraft is a relatively new and welcome form of progress. Air France likes Boeings. USAirways likes Airbuses. Free trade in aircraft has been as beneficial to consumers as free trade in cars.
My dad was born in a time when almost nobody, even in a relatively wealthy country like the US, experienced flight. He is finishing his life in a time when the majority of the developed world regards flight as a common form of transport. His life reflects a very 20th century combination of economic growth, social mobility, technological progress and market liberalization. The greatest generation indeed.
This century may yet see technological and economic progress as remarkable as in the last century. But I doubt it. Meantime, Teal will still provide analyses of 20th century planes, including the F/A-18, Su-30 (including the 21st century T-50), AH-64, OH-58, E-3/E-737, E-8, Falcon series, Tucano, AW109/169, B-2, and CH-47. A very happy new year to all.
Yours, ‘Til The 22nd Century Gets Interesting,
© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.