There’s No Business Like Air Show Business (Part 2)

As we wrote on Wednesday (click HERE for that), air shows are unusual events, in that they represent a confluence of American history: they’re political, they’re technological, and they’re commercial. Today, we’re focusing on the technological history.

One amazing outcome of the air show is the possibility of seeing in person artifacts representing the arc of aviation history, from the Stearman biplane heavily used in the 1930s and 1940s to jets currently flying commercially and for the military. Sometimes, even a replica of the Wright flyer, the plane to first achieve controlled manned flight in 1903, will show up. While no air show offers the entirety of the technology’s history, few other histories are thrown together for a weekend as comprehensively as on the air show circuit.

The underlying reasons we can see the arc of aviation history are that this narrative is only about a hundred years old and because often a model of aircraft will fly in military, commercial, and/or private service for decades. The Boeing-737 made its first flight in 1967 and was flying passengers the next year. Forty-some years later, when you get on a Southwest Airlines flight, you’re flying in a 737. In fact, Southwest started flying passengers in 1971 but didn’t start routinely retiring planes in its fleet until 2007. Compare that with another well-known, perhaps taken-for-granted technology: the computer. Chances are, you’re in need of a new laptop if yours is even five years old.


An airplane doesn’t hold up safely forever, and every pressurization cycle (based on takeoff and landing) stresses the fuselage and wings. Eventually, in commercial aviation, a plane nears the number of pressurization cycles it can accumulate without significant risk of damage and becomes cheaper to scrap than to maintain because large portions would need to be replaced. Some aircraft we see at air shows have had so many parts replaced that they are new planes in a sense. Human beings replace cells all the time; the skin we had as children is long-ago shed, and we are, in that sense, completely rebuilt on our surface.

So the brevity of aviation history combined with the longevity of individual models and airplanes means that air shows often encapsulate 80 or more years worth of this particular technology story. When we head to an air show, we’re not sure exactly what we’ll see, but we expect to see a historical arc.

T-6 Texan

The first North American Aviation T-6 took flight in 1935, and this model is still making rounds on the air show circuit. In fact, you can pretty much expect to see a T-6 as you walk around the grounds. The P-51 Mustang, a slender aluminum cruciform object against the blue sky, is a regular at air shows. We usually see a Corsair, with its distinctive gull wings, often a dark blue that somehow catches the sun and our eyes especially well.

P-51 Mustang

Ford Trimotors occasionally turn up, and they first flew in 1926. The WWII-era Japanese Zero is a rare sight; as of last year, there existed only three airworthy Zeroes and only several more intact. FIFI is the only remaining airworthy B-29, so that’s an exceptionally rare air show participant; this aircraft tours the air show circuit (this year included Oshkosh and St. Louis) and spends the winter at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum.

Heritage flights are a relative newcomer to air shows. We don’t remember such a thing from our early adventures together twenty years ago. Begun in 1997 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Air Force, the Heritage Flight Program established a non-profit in 2010 to help keep this popular but expensive air show feature afloat. This year, we’ve seen two heritage flights: one at the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show featuring the F-86 and F-16, and the other at Miramar (posts HERE for photos and HERE for more) featuring the P-51 and F-16. The idea is to present a vintage aircraft alongside a current one so that viewers like us can understand the technological and performance differences and also begin to grasp through examples the larger story of aviation history.

Heritage Flight, Jacqueline Cochran Air Show

Both the F-86 and the F-16 are single-engine fighters. The F-86 set a world speed record only months after aircraft starting rolling out of production in 1948: 670.9 miles per hour. The F-16, which the Air Force started flying in 1978, can top speeds of Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, and can pull 9-g—g-forces on the plane and pilot—maneuvers, for which it has a reclined seat to help prevent the pilot from passing out by keeping blood better distributed under high g-forces. Lest you think the F-86 is a speed slouch, in its day, which was the Korean War, it bested the MiG-15 with a 10:1 victory ratio.

Likewise, lest you think that military aircraft are all about U.S. superiority, keep in mind that the F-16 was built by a consortium of four—now five—NATO countries and, therefore, represents international technological collaboration. In fact, seeing the Korean War-era fighter zip by on the flight line followed by a fighter currently being used in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq points out that the history of technology is intertwined with our larger history, politics, and culture.

P-51 Mustang & F-8 Bearcat

One fascinating aspect of the history represented by seeing the F-86 and F-16 together, particularly considering the longevity of an aircraft model, is that each individual plane at any air show is almost always exceptionally well documented. When a plane crashes, we all know that investigators can trace its entire maintenance history. Safety requires a regular maintenance established by the manufacturer for all aircraft. If a tire blows or a valve sticks, the repair or replacement is written down and filed away officially. More than once, we’ve sat in a plane at the gate waiting for the pilot to get permission to take off while maintenance files the paperwork. The military, of course, keeps careful records too, and even private pilots have to file maintenance and flight plan paperwork.

When a visitor walked into the Palm Spring Air Museum and said, I think that’s the plane I flew at Naval Station Great Lakes, the museum’s staff was able to look at the records and confirm that. We included photos of and information about that plane in our post on November 11 (click HERE for that).

Electra Junior

A man like Les Whittlesey can buy a Lockheed Electra Junior, an L-12, and know exactly who owned the plane for how long over the course of its entire lifespan. When we see the gleaming plane at the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show, Les can recount an abbreviated version of that plane’s story to us. In fact, this Electra deserves its own post, so that’s in the works at Lofty Ambitions.

More than three years ago, we moved to California in part to have easier access to the nation’s aviation history. Lockheed was and now Lockheed Martin is based in Southern California. North American, manufacturer of the T-6 and the P-51 and now subsumed by Boeing, was based here too. Just down the road in Tustin are two WWII-era blimp hangars of the type we grew to appreciate during our visits to Tillamook, Oregon, and its aviation museum. Just up the road is Chino’s Planes of Fame Air Museum, and Chino is a hub for aircraft restoration. And of course, the space shuttle was born here in California.

T-28, the last departure before we headed home

We went to the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show earlier this month. In the Midwest, that just wouldn’t be possible. Illinois doesn’t host air shows in November. California, on the other, offered us a sunny November afternoon to spend wending our way among rows of aircraft, eyeing the technology’s history up close one plane after the other. For hours, we also peered into the sky to watch the history retold.

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