Today,we go to an air show. 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.
When I was a child, what I wanted most, and my father
wanted least, was to go the Minnesota State Fair with its crowds, rides, glitz,
and endless promise of excitement. Well, 75 five years later, the
Wings Over Houston Air Show came to town. So I went.
Here was my childhood State Fair adventure. Hot dogs, a mile of airplanes on display,
kiosks, games, sentimentality, flag-waving ... But at its core was a kind of history
lesson we can't get from books -- an open-air textbook on the history of the past
75 years of flight from the early P-40 fighter onward.
A terribly important part of that history is a clear view of the visceral side of flight.
By the time it was over, anyone could understood how we've been driven by some elemental
atavistic need in our psyche to keep building better airplanes.
So, what were the elements of this lesson? First, there was sound: Not just the
explosive roar of jets passing at speeds only a hair slower than sound. We were
also taught to hear the difference between the whine of the Mustang's water-cooled
engine and the deep rumble of the Thunderbolt's radial engine -- a difference that's
hounded the entire history of piston engines.
Above a P-51 Mustang
(with an inline liquid-cooled engine) taking off. Below, a P-47 Thunderbolt
(with a radial air-cooled engine) taking off.
And there was diversity. We saw aircraft all the way from the tiniest acrobatic airplane
to the B-29 Superfortress. And, at an even smaller scale we watched four men in flight
suits jump from an odd British cargo plane. They flew back toward Earth using the webbing
between their arms and legs -- like flying squirrels.
On it went for five hours: A formation of four generations of Air Force fighters; stunt
pilots doing things that made us want to close our eyes; a stunt helicopter flying loops
close to the ground. I found the re-enactment of the Pearl Harbor Attack unsettling because
my mind drifted back to that terrible day when this 11-year-old boy saw his world completely
The frosting on the cake was incredible formation flying. The civilian Heavy Metal Team,
flew four Russian jet training planes and one MIG-17 in formations so tight that the airplanes
overlapped in almost any angle we saw them. The Snowbirds were Canadian Air Force pilots
flying training jets in 9-airplane formations. And they were equally hair-raising, but they
went more for beauty of formation than raw drama.
So back to my point: The history of flight is the history of a body/machine/psyche interaction.
We can never really understand how flight became what it is in the world today without once
experiencing that gut-twisting intensity at close quarters.
It's an experience we were privileged to have on Saturday. Take a look at my photos of the
occasion in the posted episode. This was a place where I realized that something quite profound
lay within the fairgrounds fun of a sunny day.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we are interested in the
way inventive minds work.
The 27th Annual Commemorative Air Force Wings Over Houston Air Show ran on October
15 and 16, 2011 at Ellington Airport.
Click here for my photo slideshow on Wings Over Houston.
See also the websites for the
Wings Over Houston Air Show,
the Canadian Snowbirds,
the Heavy Metal Jet Team,
the Lone Star Flight Museum,
and other organizations listed on the Air Show website.
For more on radial vs. inline engines see Episode 2558.
All photos by John Lienhard.
Upper photograph (top to bottom): f-16 Viper, P-47 Thunderbolt, F-4 Phantom, and P-51, Mustang. Lower Photograph: The Canadian
Snowbirds in formation.
This episode was first aired on October 19, 2011
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.