"Of Dreams and Metal Detectors."
In one of those great moments, I took my eldest daughter for her first flight in a light aircraft. Her excitement and sheer joy reminded me of a time 40 years ago when my father had first taken me aloft in a seat that was complemented by a control column instead of a tray table. Yet within that period of my lifetime, the face of aviation security has changed so incredibly that one wonders if the joy is being strangled at the grass roots level of aviation.
My parents told tales of barnstorming pilots landing on local farms and taking folks for their first flight in frail machines with open cockpits. Airfields were far more developed by my childhood, but the ability to interact with ‘planes and pilots was far more common. Airfields were littered with new Pipers, Cessnas and Beechcraft, while DC-3s and Beavers fired up their radials, the Mustangs in civilian garb roared skyward to tow targets for the military. There was all manner of wings to climb upon and instrument panels to gaze at through hands cupped on Perspex.
As long as you paid due respect to taxiways and people’s property, there were basically no limitations upon the budding young aviator. Free to wander and explore, query and question. And those who called the airport their home could not encourage the next generation enough, hoisting them into seats and on occasions taking them for that prized goal; a circuit! A small camera with 12 valued frames of film was standard equipment and the week’s wait for developing was almost too long to bear. The entire experience of a visit to the airport was about as good as it could get for a keen youngster.
And then the events of 11th September 2001 took place and forever changed our world and our industry.
Flying internationally in the months following the attacks, security screening was heightened to a level never seen. When Richard Reid attempted to take an aircraft down with explosive shoes only a month later, footwear became the next target. Less than two years later, Heathrow was the scene of a strong military presence when fears of a ‘surface to air missile’ attack raised their head and we walked through Terminal 4 surrounded by combat ready troops. The scene was not so different in 2006 when the liquids and gels Trans-Atlantic plot was foiled. The postcards of Pan-Am Clippers and bow-tied waiters were long gone, now replaced by the harsh reality of a 21st Century under fire.
These security measures were inevitable, not only to deter those who would attack an aircraft, but to provide some degree of confidence in the industry for those who choose to fly. Undoubtedly there will be further measures in the future as one and all recognise that it is an area of ongoing review where complacency is potentially the greatest weapon. But how has this brave new world affected the next generation of starry-eyed aviators?
At some airfields, easy access has been replaced towering fences and coded security gates. Benches which once offered unobscured views are cordoned off and security vehicles pause and at times question those peering through fences with a telephoto lens. The accessibility of aviation has disappeared for many youngsters and the sterile airline terminal and boarding through a windowless aerobridge is the most that is on offer to many. Is this an environment where the dreams and excitement can be nurtured as they once were?
In the face of these hurdles there is definitely still hope for the next wave of budding aviators and engineers, however, a greater degree of responsibility also rests with those of us who have already taken to the skies and can remember the times before the sky went a darker shade. Programs such as the ‘Young Eagles’ in the United States are growing elsewhere and offer an opportunity for youngsters to go flying in a general aviation aeroplane free of charge through the generosity of volunteers. Youth organisations around the world such as Air Cadets seek to encourage air-mindedness and offer opportunities for their members to get see aviation at a closer range than is normally available.
While these organisations due a tremendous job, the responsibility doesn’t end with the group; it stays with the individual. As pilots, instructors, owners and engineers staff we should take the time to avail opportunities to those young minds that show an interest in our chosen endeavour of aviation. It may be in the form of organising a school excursion to your airfield, or attending a careers night; it may be even in the form of taking a bright-eyed future aviator for a lap of the airfield. The reality of our times is that these gestures will be less spontaneous and more the subject of procedures and protocol. Accordingly, that will call for a greater degree of organisation and effort, but it is something we must undertake.
Sure, the internet offers images, videos and glimpses of aviation hardware from around the world, but a computer can never impart the true sounds, smells and air-sense that spinning props and popping exhausts bring to life. It is as much about environment as it is imagery.
A failure to encourage those coming through will manifest commercially as a ‘pilot shortage’, but the shortcoming runs much deeper than that; it is the loss of opportunity. Not all those we encourage will pursue aviation as a career or even pursue it as a hobby, but their exposure to aviation and the magic of flight may just set the wheels of imagination and ambition in motion. That one flight may serve to provide a young mind with an insight into why self-discipline is important or how safety is always a consideration. The lesson may just be as simple as someone taking the time out to show an interest.
The headlines will continue to spread gloom about an industry under threat, but that does not mean that there is no room left for a youngster’s dreams. In a world of security fences and metal detectors, we all have the ability to go against the trend and encourage the next generation to share in the joy of flight.