I’ve always believed that much of General Aviation’s success in our time is a legacy of World War II. Aviation was a hero, if not “the” hero, of the war. Pilots were idolized. And everyone saw a bright future and new horizons for “The Air Age.”
I find a potent artifact of this gospel in the first Hollywood production of a movie you probably know as “Always.” Before Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter played out a love triangle with “Ted,” the bumbling Forest Service air attack rookie, the 1943 original found Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne and Van Johnson doing the same in a military setting.
It’s called “A Guy Named Joe.” Filmed mid-war when things were not going all that well, the early 1944 release was a hit, grossing $5.4 million. (The 1989 production “Always” earned $74 million. Audrey Hepburn played “Hap” hosting Dreyfuss in heaven, just as Lionel Barrymore had as “The General” advising Spencer Tracy’s newly deceased Pete, guardian angel to newbie pilot Ted.)
What got me in the original was the climactic pep talk by The General to that newly arrived angel struggling against a future without him. The film, often criticized as melodramatic or propagandistic, peaks with Barrymore’s sermon on the inspiring future of an America with wings.
First were the fairly standard post-war hopes of “a free man in a free world.” But then came visions of a loftier future for The Greatest Generation and their children: “They’re gonna fly like a generation of angels… (enjoying) the freedom of the very air we breathe… the freedom of mankind rushing to greet the future on wings. They’re gonna climb out of the muck and the dust and see the sky.”
Americans came home from that muck and dust and did indeed fly. Half a million were trained in aviation for World War II. Millions more were exposed to aviation and air travel in the post-war military. Hopefuls foresaw an airplane (or helicopter) in every garage. GA skyrocketed in 1946-47 with the mass market Piper Cub and its ilk, faded sharply in the post-war economy, then grew again with 1950s/60s prosperity and all-metal airplanes. A mass market for airline travel grew steadily then boomed with jet-power.
In today’s lagging GA, I see the predictable waning of World War II’s romance with aviation, the passing of “The Greatest Generation” and the aging of its “Baby Boom” offspring. (Research proved a major driver of GA’s growth was the example of a friend or relative who flew.) Yes, there’s continued reverence for the airplane as hero of World War II (just check cable TV or local air shows) but less connection with its possibilities today. Newer digital communications and capabilities dawn daily, fresh and exciting.
Rent a copy of “A Guy Named Joe” or catch it on TCM sometime. It’s interesting on several levels. (A major element is aerial hot-dogging in P-38s. I wonder if they purposefully showcased that plane. The military just then was battling the P-38’s “hard-to-handle” reputation.)
Overall, my take on it is this: “Joe” takes place in a different world from “Always.” We’re in new territory now and have been heading there for decades. The question now is what to make of it all and how to do something intelligent about it.
Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.
© 2011 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved.