Airplanes engage all my senses. Visually, airplanes are to me some of humankind’s most attractive, inspiring creations. Aurally, which of us is not moved by the sounds of a whirlin’ Merlin and its prop as a carefully preserved Spitfire screams by? Or the harmonious rumble of four big radial engines when a B-17 flies over? Which of us doesn’t run a hand gently and respectfully over an old Cub’s yellow fabric, or sit in the cockpit after a flight and touch all the controls before stepping out?
And finally, there is the unique smell of a well-maintained old airplane. No, not the “barn finds,” with their musty, mouse-smelling interiors, or the ancient Cherokee 140s sitting out in the tall grass, their windows yellowed and dull, their upholstery dry and cracking. I’m thinking of a well-kept oldie, with an interior redolent of a mixed aroma made up of avgas, oil, pilot sweat, and some things I don’t understand. That aroma became familiar when I was a kid on Sunday tire-kicking expeditions to the airport with the family. I swear, sometimes I can even taste something when seated in an old bird. Now, many decades later, of all the sensory pleasures afforded me by being around old airplanes, the number one is their evocative aroma.
I’ve hung around several EAA chapters over the years, and found, as is generally true now, that old airplanes seem especially attractive to old guys and a few seasoned gals. Perhaps I’ve missed an opportunity by not surveying them about how airplanes affect them through their senses. I suspect many would bring up some variation on my first paragraph— that the attraction of airplanes began in youth and that sensory memories are still vivid. I wonder if old aircraft mechanics have similar feelings about the sensory aspects of airplanes. I also wonder if younger pilots are acquiring any deep sensory affections for airplanes— young readers, speak up.
New airplanes tend to smell to me a bit like new cars— especially high-zoot aircraft like the Cirrus— but I imagine… hope… that they soon acquire that heady, blended old airplane aroma, and that it’s strong enough to drown out the odors of expensive men’s and women’s perfumes and classy leather luggage!
Are old guys attracted to old airplanes by nostalgia? For sure, in the first 30 years or so after WWII, there were lots of pilots whose romance with aviation began in the excitement of Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing, grew through the “Golden Age” of ‘30s air racing and record-setting, and perhaps matured as biplanes went to war. But the restorers and flyers of old airplanes today are connected at best to those old days through their fathers or grandfathers, not direct experience. Is this nostalgia by proxy?
Then there is money. Why would a person of means sufficient to acquire, say, a nice Skylane or Bonanza instead spend that amount of money, or more, to restore a Waco biplane or a Stearman or a Globe Swift? Those old airplanes have far less capability and utility than a newer factory-built airplane, and probably greater safety (called to mind by actor Harrison Ford’s forced landing in his Ryan PT-22). Yet for some, the decision is clearcut and firm: old wins out over new.
Just as for so many things in life, the motivations of those who love, fly, restore, and preserve old airplanes are probably many and complex. For some, there may well be a kind of “nostalgia by proxy,” something that led me to buy an old fabric-covered taildragger similar to the ones my father trained in nearly 75 years ago. For others, it may be the seeming simplicity and straightforwardness of old-tech airframes, machines that ordinary mortals can understand, tear down, and restore. There might even be a little show business aspect— the ramp rats appear like magic when an itinerant old radial-engined airplane taxis up to the FBO, and many airmen enjoy being the center of attention. For others, an interest in history— WWI, WWII, the air-racing era, Lindbergh’s flight— leads to an interest in the old aircraft. But for the purposes of this essay, I’ll posit that the ineffable appeal of old airplanes to the five senses— sight, sound, aroma, touch, and even taste— forms an essential substrate that draws many of us to them.
What about you, dear readers? Do old airplanes appeal to you in ways that new— or newer— ones do not? Please share your stories.