That could be me in the above photo if I would have stuck to my first career choice. Of course I was only seven when I thought being a locomotive engineer would be a cool job. But a couple of years go by and, well, you know, a guy grows up. One warm winter afternoon in 1959 dad parked at the end of a runway near Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. In those innocent days you could do such things. It was cheap entertainment, and quite thrilling, to watch passenger jets take off into a fiery western sunset. It became a favorite pastime for dad and I, and it spawned second thoughts about my first career choice of becoming a train driver.
Once every month or so dad and I would sit on the hood of our Oldsmobile de jour... fingers in ears... just for the experience of feeling jumbo jet's sonic thunder liquify our innards. It was like an internal microwave... an intestinal earthquake. I remember the odor of spent fuel, how skies darkened from plume after plume of exhaust trails, and the shimmering wrinkles of heat that made South Mountain quiver on the horizon of our "valley of the sun." Newton's laws of gravity seemed violated. How could something so ponderous rise into the sky?
In the good old days of Roger Miller, Captain Kangaroo and Andy Griffith, when flying was a luxury and gasoline was 24.9 cents a gallon, passenger jet pilots put all throttles to the "metal" upon take-off. I'm not sure why, maybe for the thrill, maybe just because they could. Later, I would fly for the first time and fall in love with being treated like royalty... and the feel of "blasting off" like Buck Rogers, G force pinning me against the seat. It was a wonderful sensation, being pampered by pretty stewardesses and pinned to my seat by acceleration. I think I would fly more often if flying was still like that. I carried my love for G force and pretty girls into my teens, where a hopped up 69 Camero provided similar effects from acceleration, and several chicks wanting to ride along.
To me, there was something unnatural (thus suspenseful) about take-offs back in the 60's. Passenger jets seemed like big fat farm turkeys with little bitty slender wings. Dad and I watched plane after plane... loaded with trusting passengers, baggage and fuel... lumber and flap headlong toward barricades and the rocky spoils of Salt River's gravel pits. Seemingly, at the last second, beyond "failsafe," the bird's nose would gently rise and point so skyward as to defy logic and drag tail feathers on pavement. Like middle schoolers departing assembly, a plethora of little round feet left the ground row by row. It seemed so tentative and dangerous, liftoff. A bold point of no return. I would use every single horsepower available, too... when I became a pilot.
It was at this point... liftoff, a mere stone's throw overhead... that I got a snapshot view of passengers. Some had noses pressed against windows, maybe out of fear, or delight, or, perhaps, both. Passengers; supposedly intelligent beings; stacked in a flimsy tube like human Pringles... assuming that a million mechanical parts and some stranger at the "wheel" would do what they were supposed to do at the most critical juncture of flight... the point of no return. As ground quaked underfoot, thunder turned internal organs into worms, Dad would grin like a kid at a carnival. My eyes, wide with awe, suggested that planes look ridiculous hanging in the air at 45 degree angles... especially at still plod-along speeds that I'd wager a weeks allowance as being insufficient to support flight.
We'd sit there, dad and I... sipping Dr Peppers and eating sun-softened Longhorn cheese with saltine crackers... marveling at miracle, after miracle, after miracle. The miracle of flight. It never became ordinary. Those were the days of full throttle, fuel-be-dammed take-offs. We heard the miracle through plugged ears. We felt it in hollow chests. We saw it through disbelieving eyes, squinting into a setting desert sun. Roll over in your grave, Mr Newton: Sheer Thrust overcomes a multitude of gravitational sins.
Here is some information to remind you of what it was like to fly in the 1960's...
- Flying was expensive. For example: A round trip ticket between Cleveland and Washington D.C. was about $75. This doesn't sound like a bad deal, until you adjust the fare for inflation: That's over $400 in today's dollars! By contrast, a recent airfare was less than $100 for a round trip between Cleveland and Washington on one of today's low-cost deregulated carriers.
- There was no point in shopping around for the best deal, because all airfares were controlled by regulation. If a roundtrip ticket between Cleveland and Washington was $75 on one airline, it was $75 on all the airlines.
- Because it was so expensive, flying was rare, and it was an "event." The expectation was that you would wear nice clothing onto the flight. Anyone who had strolled onto an airplane in the 1960's or early 1970's in a sweatsuit, or ragged jeans and a tee shirt, would have caused a major buzz among the passengers.
- No security procedures of any consequence. You walked up to the ticket counter, bought your ticket, showed no identification, walked out unsupervised onto the tarmac, and climbed up the stairs and onto the plane. Meeting an arriving flight? Just stroll on over to the gate and greet them as they walk off the plane.
- There were observation decks at many airports. With little concern about security, some airports allowed you to stroll outside, take a seat, and watch the airplanes come and go. On a warm summer night, it was actually rather pleasant.
- No little television screens scattered throughout the airport to tell you where your flight was. There was only one big board in the main lobby, like a bus station. Forgot your gate? You had to go find the big board to look it up.
- The vast majority of the passengers were white male businessmen.... occasionally families, and very few minorities. Seldom did women travel independently.
- The stewardesses were pretty young women in ever shortening skirts. "We have the sexiest stewardesses" seemed to be a major advertising theme among the airlines. Their tiny skirts were designed to ride way up when they reached into the overhead compartments, or when they bent over to serve drinks to the passengers seated near the windows. This was intended no doubt for the entertainment of the largely male segment of passengers.