Today, a surprising way to preserve our past. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
"This July," says historian
Frederick Johnsen, "20,000 airplanes will make
their way across ... thousands of miles of sky to
Oshkosh, Wisconsin -- some 800,000 people will come
to see them there."
This astonishing yearly gathering is called the
Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-in
Convention. The history of flight goes on display
from the days of the Wright Brothers to the latest
experimental craft -- a few are replicas, most are
originals. This gathering of machines recalls
something the architect, Le Corbusier, wrote about
airplanes, way back in 1935:
Every variant on the flying machine is to be
found here. The airplane embodies the purest
expression of the human scale and a miraculous
exploitation of material.
No door is closed. Everything is relative. ...
If a new factor makes its appearance, the relation
alters. ... In aviation everything is scrapped in a
By now, airplane designers have found their way to
optimal proportions for doing conventional tasks.
Today's airplanes have a dreary sameness about
them. But each year in Oshkosh we see the spectrum
of live invention in motion. Of course the big
draws are the war birds -- Sopwith Camels and
Yet war has produced less diversity than civilian
flight has. The many racing planes of the thirties
finally gelled into a few WW-II fighter designs. We
see airplanes with wings in front and wings in back
-- airplanes so light you can carry them.
The meeting rule is that each airplane must fly
into the field under its own power. No static
museum pieces here. That bothers many people who
want to preserve the past. Each year these old
machines become more precious. Isn't it dangerous
to fly them?
A WW-II P-51 Mustang, which could be had for $5000
in the 1950s, now brings a million dollars. Yet the
numbers of old planes in the air rises twenty
percent per year. Their very presence teases old
planes and old parts out of the woodwork. New
caches of old flying stock keep turning up. It
seems backward, but preservation is better served
by keeping the planes in the air.
Meanwhile, the restorers pore over microfilms of
old plans -- occasionally building a new part to
old specs. Members of air museums all over the
world form a great swap network.
Here in Texas, the Lone Star Flight Museum can
boast that its whole collection is either airworthy
or being made so. Now and then we see their
airplanes, or those of their friends, flying over
Houston -- looking like some visitation from the
When a WW-II Catalina amphibian put down in
Galveston Bay, police phones rang off the hook. So
few people had ever seen a seaplane land they
thought the airplane was crashing in the water. But
it served to remind us that old airplanes, like old
violins, are better preserved when they keep doing
what they were meant to do.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds