Skip to main content
No. 1223:
Ghosts From the Sky

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 year.

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 B-17s.

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 Twilight Zone.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Johnsen, F. A., Ghosts from the Sky. American Heritage, April 1997, pp. 78-85.

I am grateful to Ralph Royce, President of the Lone Star Flight Museum, for his counsel on this episode.