A plane-crazy America

GA in pop culture through the years

April 8, 2014

The realization may not immediately spring to mind, but the fact is that general aviation’s mass appeal has always been powerful over the past 100-plus years. After all, what was the Wright Flyer if not a general aviation airplane? The Wrights kicked off a groundswell of enthusiasm for aviation once word spread of their monumental achievements. That took awhile—for several reasons. First, the Wrights were secretive about their wing-warping method of lateral control, and didn’t want publicity in the early years of their flying. Plus, there was a lot of skepticism. Europeans, if they believed it at all, belittled what the Wrights had accomplished.

That all changed when the Wrights demonstrated their Flyer in France in 1908 and 1909. Crowds and royalty alike flocked to see the airplane fly, and the Wrights even started a flying school in Pau, France. A previously unimpressed U.S. Army contracted to buy its first military airplane—the Wright Military Flyer—in 1909. And the world was about to go aviation-crazy.

In the pre-World War I years, European airshows and exhibitions garnered lots of press coverage. New designs were coming out monthly. Airshows drew thousands who gasped at the sight of a steep turn. While the Wrights began a lengthy fight to defend their patents, it was European general aviation that got the most attention.

After World War I, America took the limelight and never relinquished it. War-surplus Curtiss JN–4 Jenny trainers could be had for $200, and pilots lined up to buy them. Thus began the barnstorming era. All through the 1920s, pilots would drop in on towns large and small, give rides, and put on airshows. Some even put on “Air Circuses.” It was the first mass, up-close introduction to aviation for the American populace. Aviation, previously the province of an in crowd of designers and the privileged, reached the middle class in a big way.

Barnstorming mirrored the freewheeling, exuberant spirit of the times. Airplanes raced each other, raced cars, flew the first wingwalkers, served as in-flight trapezes, and put on aerobatic demonstrations. But it wasn’t all levity. Serious advances in airplane design were in the works. Increasingly, old wood-and-fabric biplanes were viewed as antiques as strut-braced and cantilevered monoplanes made of aluminum began to arrive on the scene. Without exaggeration, one such airplane in particular revolutionized aviation and truly signaled a new dawn in what was then identified as the Air Age.

It was the Spirit of Saint Louis, the year was 1927, and the pilot was Charles Lindbergh—a former barnstormer and air mail pilot. Lindbergh set out in pursuit of a $25,000 prize offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig to the first person who could fly nonstop from New York to Paris. True, John Alcock and Arthur Brown had already flown their Vickers Vimy from Newfoundland to Ireland nonstop in 1919, but that achievement received little publicity at the time and by 1927 it had been all but forgotten.

Lindbergh had his competitors, but he flew into hero status when he made the New York-to-Paris flight on May 20 and 21, 1927. His life, and American aviation, underwent an immediate transformation. For the next 14 years, Lindbergh would be surrounded by crowds, deluged by mail, and hounded by the press. His son was kidnapped and murdered. At the same time, American civil aviation assumed big-league status. By proving that the North Atlantic could be safely crossed in a single-engine airplane, Lindbergh cleared the way for airline travel.

It was also a sort of signal for a huge number of general aviation manufacturers to set up shop. This was a time of glorious general aviation expansion and diversification, as historic brands such as Beechcraft, Bellanca, Cessna, Fairchild, Mooney, Myers, Piper, Porterfield, Stinson, Taylorcraft, Waco, and many others hit their stride—in spite of the Great Depression.

Movies began to play a part in aviation mania. Wings, a silent movie about aerial combat in World War I, came out in 1927 and won an Oscar—the last of the silent movies to win the award. This was followed by another movie—a “talkie” this time—about World War I dogfighting, Hell’s Angels. It was a $4 million epic that cost four pilots their lives, took three years to make, and grossed $8 million. The producer/director was a young oil drill-bit manufacturer and pilot named Howard Hughes.

A few showbiz and actor pilots over the years

Brian Aherne (1902-1986)—Actor, AOPA charter member

Gene Autry (1907-1998)—Musician. Flew the Hump in World War II, owned a DC–3 and Beech 18

Richard Bach (1936- )—USAF pilot, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Edgar Bergen (1903-1978)—Ventriloquist

Jimmy Buffett (1946- )—Singer. Owned Stearman, Albatross, and Lake

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)—wrote Tarzan of the Apes

Roy Clark (1933- )—Musician

Tom Cruise (1962- )—Actor. Owns P–51

Robert Cummings (1908-1990)—Actor

Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959)—Movie director/producer

John Denver (1943-1997)—Singer

Brian Donlevy (1901-1972)—Actor, AOPA charter member

Michael Dorn (1952- )—Actor, owned F–86 and Sabreliner

Clint Eastwood (1930- )—Actor, helicopter pilot

Harrison Ford (1942- )—Actor

Morgan Freeman (1937- )—Actor

Ernest K. Gann (1910-1991)—Author

Hoot Gibson (1892-1962)—Actor

Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983)—Radio/TV host

Paul Harvey (1918-2009)—Radio personality

Howard Hawks (1896-1977)—Movie director, World War I pilot

Skitch Henderson (1918-2005)—bandleader for The Tonight Show, World War II pilot

Howard Hughes (1905-1976)—Movie director/producer, industrialist

William Hurt (1950- )—Actor. Owns Bonanza A36

Angelina Jolie (1975- )—Actress, owns Cirrus SR22 and Cessna Caravan

Danny Kaye (1913-1987)—Comedian

George Kennedy (1925- )—Actor, owned Cessna 210 and Bonanza A36

Kris Kristofferson (1936- )—Actor, singer. Helicopter pilot in U.S. Army

Paul Mantz (1903-1965)—Film director, tech advisor. Killed while filming Flight of the Phoenix

Ed McMahon (1923-2009)—TV announcer

Steve McQueen (1930-1980)—Actor

Wayne Newton (1942- )—Singer, helicopter pilot

Chuck Norris (1940- )—Actor

Susan Oliver (1937-1990)—Actress, “green girl” in original Star Trek, owned Aero Commander

Lawrence Olivier (1907-1989)—Actor

Jack Palance (1919-2006)—Actor, bailed out of burning B–24

Fess Parker (1924-2010)—Actor

George Peppard (1928-1994)—Actor, owned Learjet

Sydney Pollack (1934-2008)—Movie/TV producer

Dick Powell (1904-1963)—Movie and TV actor

Tyrone Power (1914-1958)—Actor

Dennis Quaid (1954- )—Actor, Citation owner

Randy Quaid (1950- )—Actor

Christopher Reeve (1952-2004)—Actor

Cliff Robertson (1925-2011)—Actor, owned Tiger Moth and Bonanza

Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991)—Director, screenwriter, created Star Trek. Transport pilot in World War II

Fred Rogers (1928-2003)—Children’s TV host

Roy Rogers (1911-1998)—Movie and TV actor. Owned Cessna Bobcat

Kurt Russell (1951- )—Actor

Art Scholl (1931-1985)—Tech advisor, died during filming of Top Gun

James Stewart (1908-1997)—Actor. World War II B–24 bomber pilot, owned Cessna 310

Patrick Swayze (1952-2009)—Actor

Hughes entered aviation history in 1937 when he broke a transcontinental speed record by flying his H–1 racer from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, in seven hours, 28 minutes. More noteworthy flying records, and aircraft designs, followed.

Other pilots were also busy setting records in the 1930s. In November 1930 Roscoe Turner—who flew in Hell’s Angels—flew from New York to Burbank, California, in 12 hours, 30 minutes, setting a transcontinental speed record. In 1931, Bobbi Trout and Edna May Cooper broke an endurance record by flying a Curtiss Robin 122 hours and 50 minutes. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. In 1935 she flew from Honolulu to Oakland, California, making her the first to fly solo across any part of the Pacific Ocean.

It seems as though everyone was setting records or winning air races in the 1930s—and the public couldn’t get enough. People back then would show up in droves (there was no television) to witness any kind of aviation event. There were scads of comic books about flying—and magazines, magazines, magazines. One of them, Popular Aviation, had an insert titled “AOPA Pilot.”

After World War II, it was generally assumed that returning military pilots, and civilians sick of war’s deprivations, would buy their own GA airplanes. This was the impetus for the Engineering and Research Corporation (Erco) to design and build its postwar Ercoupe—an endearing 75-horsepower, two-seat, stall-resistant airplane that sold for $2,665. It was a rousing success: Erco sold 4,311 of its 1946 model 415-C. But it was a success never to be repeated.

Beechcraft’s Model 35 V-tail Bonanza debuted in 1947, and in its first two years of production 1,500 of these classics were built; by the end of its production run in 1982, almost 8,700 Model 35s of various designations had sold. Other classics of the 1950s included the Cessna 195 (575 sales), and the two-seat Cessna 140 (7,700 sales).

This was also the time when light twins came into their own. Cessna’s 310, entered production in 1954 and was so popular that some 6,300 of them were sold by 1980. But to the public the 310 meant something beyond sales. It was the airplane featured in the television series Sky King. Sky King ran from 1951 to 1959 and featured Kirby Grant as an Arizona rancher/pilot (with his niece Penny and nephew Clipper) who used his 310—called the Songbird—to capture criminals and, well, advance the general good. To a young baby boomer the sight of a banking 310 and the opening line, “Out of the clear western sky comes—Sky King!” means it’s time for some quality viewing on the family’s black-and-white Philco. Trivia note: Sky King’s first airplane was a Cessna T–50 Bobcat (a.k.a. the “Bamboo Bomber”).

The Bob Cummings Show ran from 1955 to 1959 and featured Cummings, an active pilot, as a Hollywood photographer. Cummings was reportedly taught to fly by his godfather, Orville Wright.

Thousands of kids joined the Boy Scouts of America in its 1950s heyday, and more joined the Air Explorers, a branch of the Boy Scouts that focused on aviation. Explorers wore special uniforms, could earn ratings, climb the ranks, go on field trips to airports, and even log some time in the cockpit. The Air Explorers were most active between 1954 and 1965, and participation reached its peak in 1958, with 10,968 scouts.

General aviation is defined as all flying save that done by the military and the airlines. So does that mean the United States space program is part of GA? It might as well have been, as so much public enthusiasm was directed at the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions in the 1960s. It culminated in 1969, when Apollo 11 landed the first men on the moon. The whole world tuned in to watch.

Today, GA dominates a new generation of space flight. None would have thought it possible just a few years earlier, but in 2003 Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites—in a joint venture with Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen—designed, built, and flew WhiteKnight, a plane that carried the company’s SpaceShipOne suborbital rocket ship and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by flying to an altitude of 100 kilometers (54 nm) twice in one week.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic orbital spacecraft project SpaceShipTwo fed off this success and will use Scaled Composites’ new WhiteKnightTwo as its mothership. The idea is to offer space tourism. Flight and engine tests are now under way, and Spaceport America in New Mexico is under construction. It will serve as Virgin Galactic’s base of operations. Some 640 passengers (among them Steven Hawking, Tom Hanks, and Angelina Jolie) have already signed up at $250,000 per head, even though Virgin Galactic has yet to say when the first commercial flights will begin.

The next time someone opines that GA is on its last legs, just remember: It went from the dunes of Kill Devil Hill to the edge of space in 60 short years, and has always shown surprising innovation and mass appeal. It’s not about to stop.

GA in the movies

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)—A drunken pilot (Jim Backus) passes out and Buddy Hackett, a nonpilot, has to take the controls. He flies through a billboard.

Octopussy (1983)—Corkey Fornof, playing James Bond, flies a BD–5J through an open hangar.

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)—Robert Redford as a barnstormer.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)—Jimmy Stewart and Richard Attenborough crash in the desert, then attempt to rebuild the airplane and fly out.

Independence Day (1996)—Randy Quaid leaves cropdusting behind to fight invading aliens. “Hello boys…I’m ba-a-ck….Payback’s hell, ain’t it?”

The High and the Mighty (1954)—Cockpit resource management: Co-pilot John Wayne slaps Capt. Robert Stack back to his senses.

The Aviator (1985)—Christopher Reeve’s airmail plane goes down in the wilderness. Wolf attacks ensue.

In Like Flint (1967)—Super-spy James Coburn parachutes from a Learjet.

The Carpetbaggers (1964)—George Peppard (played by Frank Tallman) lands a biplane in the middle of a small town.

Skyward (1980)—Bette Davis successfully mentors paraplegic Suzy Gilstrap (in real life a paraplegic) as she earns her pilot certificate. Charlie Hillard does the flying on this TV movie.

Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne | "AOPA Pilot" Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1970s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.