Flashback Friday: who needs heroes?

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This week has two aviation anniversaries with a common theme. Today is the 89th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris; and this week also marks 30 years since the premiere of the film Top Gun.

The thread linking them both is heroism and its seductive appeal. Lindbergh was, literally, an overnight hero. He went from obscurity to celebrity before his flight had even landed—after 33 hours in the air the 25-year-old had difficulty recognising Le Bourget airport because of the thousands of car headlights surrounding it. Spectators flocking to see him land had created an enormous traffic jam. The blessing and curse of worldwide fame became his life, from the moment his wheels touched French soil.

Heroism is also the rather unsubtle theme of Top Gun, which is essentially an airborne, cheesy, version of Homer’s Iliad. The pilot Maverick and the warrior Achilles are both headstrong, preternaturally skilled, and at one point both retreat from the fight. They return, of course, to save the day, but only one gets the girl and the happy ending.

Charles Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh

Direct safety messages from both of these anniversaries are sparse. Top Gun’s might be to be aware of wake turbulence when flying twin-engine aircraft in simulated combat—an insight of dubious applicability to civil aviation. Lindbergh is even worse—he was already sleep deprived when he took off on his epic flight. The only derivable moral from this is ‘just because you get away with something once doesn’t make it a good idea.’

Better to focus on the relationship between of heroism and aviation. The age of aerial heroism is over, and that’s a good thing: hero worship was a response to the inherent danger of early aviation. Any reappearance of against-all-odds heroics in modern aviation is a sign things have gone badly wrong in engineering, flight planning, weather forecasting, or operating procedure.

The relative dullness of 21st century aviation, in terms of accidents, should be a source of pride for all involved in it. This is not a natural state of affairs. As theorist Karl Weick says, ‘Safety is a dynamic non-event.’ The real heroes of safe flight are those who work, quietly, precisely and consistently, in the air and on the ground, to keep it that way. Here’s to them.

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