Bumps and Circuits: Where Have All the Pilots Gone?

Written by Daryl Murphy

March 2005

When I was but barefoot boy with cheek, most of my contemporaries dreamed of becoming pilots. We cluttered our Big Chief tablets and the margins of our school books with drawings of Hellcats and Mustangs streaking across the pages downing inferior and hapless enemy aircraft.
Obviously influenced by the presence of World War II, we were witness to the derring-do of Army and Navy flyers at least once a week when the local movie house got the latest edition of Movietone News.
Flying was a noble occupation, one that required bravery, a sense of adventure and a quick and inquiring intellect. And—although my prepubescent mind could not yet appreciate the ramifications—it apparently attracted girls, a distraction that appeared to waste a great deal of time and more than a little money amongst my more mature mentors, the high school crowd.
Besides its honorable traits, aviation was a high-tech business, full of people who designed and built exotic structures out of aluminum, communicated in their own secret language and passed along amazing adventure stories—some of which may have been true.

It was an age when nearly everything on an airplane was relatively easy for me to understand because it was mechanical. You could see the gears, rods, cables, pulleys, levers and sundry cadmium-plated things and figure out how they worked. Or didn't.
Electronic components were the least reliable and most mysterious assemblies to those of us who are electromotively challenged. If I can't repair avionics using percussive maintenance, I'm stumped. To me, electricity is one of those things in life that must be accepted on faith alone.

To make life simpler, I decided years ago to just ignore things electrical, pay someone else to install anything housed in a black box and limit my knowledge to learning how to use the on-off switch.
Then the computer got invented, and the phrase "high tech" didn't apply just to airplanes any more. The business was full of people who designed and built exotic structures out of glass and plastic, communicated in their own secret language and passed along stories which told rather smugly of the many traps and disasters that could befall an uninformed user.
Soon, someone had the bright idea to integrate the computer and avionics. For most pilots, it expanded their skills and capabilities far beyond what anyone had ever imagined.
For me, my worst nightmares began happening while I was awake. The on-off switch became "activate" and "disarm," and strange, newly coined acronyms that meant nothing to me began appearing. I had made the choice years ago when I chose not to get involved with black boxes.

Now I'm paying the price. A progression of youths who should be today's and tomorrow's pilots may have made their choice as well. I finally figured it out last summer at Oshkosh.
While standing in line at Café McDonald visiting with a father and his teenage son, I casually asked the youngster if he wanted to be a pilot. "Naw," he said offhandedly, "I'm not good with mechanical things, but I like to work with high-tech stuff—maybe I'll just build a simulator."

Daryl Murphy has been writing about and flying a variety of aircraft for 36 years. In addition to this magazine, his work appears in General Aviation News and Aviation International News, and he has written five aviation books and one on automobile racing.