Airshows and Americana

Airshows have been an American tradition since we pioneered powered flight in 1903; the experience is peak Americana and says a great deal about the American cultural identity.

Powered flight is perhaps the greatest of all American inventions, linking people around the country and world in a way that had never before been possible. Flight broke the most significant natural constraint to the human experience – gravity – and has fully changed the way we think about time, space, and our universe. Watching mankind slip the bounds of our earthly chains and take to the skies seemed like a form of magic to the uninitiated, and still does to people across the world who encounter aviation for the first time. The most spectacular feats of aviation come during airshows, those festival-like occasions wherein pilots in specialized planes conduct awe-inspiring aerobatic routines, joined oftentimes by beautifully-restored historical military aircraft. And just like aviation in general, nowhere has the airshow been more deeply embraced than in the United States.

To be sure, America was not the first to host an airshow; that honor belongs to our friends across the pond in France. But we sure have been the greatest proponents of aerial festivities ever since. The popularity of airshows rose rapidly after the end of the First World War, when the world’s first foray into combat aviation produced a surplus of excellent and daring pilots, better and faster aircraft, and a broader interest in the phenomenon of flight. The war also led to a large number of high-quality planes with no immediate purpose; in the US, these were sold to individual pilots for relatively modest sums. This was the genesis of widespread American civilian aviation, a tradition which has continued apace for the past century.

These developments created a boom in the airshow field, with former military pilots plying their trade in what were then known as air circuses. These barnstormers would fly around the country, stopping in towns and cities across the nation to perform their feats of aerobatic derring-do. Pilots would push their craft to the absolute limit – and often beyond that, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Wing walking, air races, aerobatic tricks, stunt parachuting, and group formation flying became staples of the airshow circuit. The pilots involved could even rise to become a household name; Charles Lindbergh being the most famous example. The barnstormers were entirely unregulated until the mid-1920s, allowing American aviation culture to truly get off the ground.

Today, airshows have remained popular in the US as a community event, taking place throughout the nation over the long airshow season which runs from March to November. America hosts the largest airshow in the world in terms of participating aircraft: the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, which includes about 10,000 aircraft annually. The enduring popularity of airshows and their unique history say a lot about American culture and our national ideals.

From the jump, the risk-taking and individualistic strand inherent in the aerobatic pursuit is classically American. We are a nation of strivers and gamblers; of entrepreneurs and do-it-yourselfers; of pioneers and thrill-seekers. Daredevilry has been popular in this country for as long as it has been around – we are the home of Evel Knievel, Johnny Knoxville, and Harry Houdini, after all. Our fascination with the spectacle of danger runs from the waterfall-jumping exploits of Sam Patch in the early 1800s to the “Man Who Fell to Earth,” Joe Kittinger, who rode a balloon to the very limits of the upper atmosphere and free-fell 19 miles to the ground below. As our culture sadly becomes more risk-averse – and far less dynamic and unique in the process – this spirit of daring has receded in much of our popular entertainment. Still, the airshow remains a bastion of that traditional American culture.

The pilots at these shows fly in their planes individually – even when operating in a larger formation – and often are the sole owners of their specialized vehicles. The entrepreneurial, self-driven nature of the field lends itself well to the American ideal of personal autonomy and meritocratic success. It also exemplifies agency, liberty, and freedom from imposed constraints. When in the sky, these pilots seemingly break the laws of physics: stalling, looping, flipping, and hovering in ways that make the mind boggle. They certainly break the rules of normal flight, which has become (largely for the best) a banal, rote activity. The pilots make their own routines, test their own tricks, and service their own airplanes. And, after all, what could be freer than flying uninhibited in one’s own personal aircraft?

Airshows exemplify that traditional American culture through their patriotic, military, and historic aspects as well. Most airshows begin with a rendition of the national anthem, often accompanied by parachuters with a rippling American flag. They include several odes to the United States armed forces, from local airbase flyovers to the inclusion of historic military aircraft in the show itself. Restored WWII planes are always a hit at these events, whether they are flightworthy or remain on the ground. Exhibits of local military history are commonplace, as are recognitions of the many veterans who come to enjoy the show.

That recognition of past sacrifice and service brings us to the heart of the American love of airshows: their communal and familial aspects. Airshows are fundamentally local events. They are often held at small regional airports or even smaller private airstrips, and draw their audiences primarily from their neighbors. These events are not only family-friendly, they frequently advertise specifically to families with smaller children. The wonder in the eyes of a child as they watch the feats of aerobatics and wander amongst the aircraft exhibits on the ground is unmatched.

Getting outside for a day of fresh air is another fantastic part of the experience, one which is far too undervalued in modern American society. In that way, airshows are truly a throwback to an earlier age, one without the chronic pull of the indoors. Airshows are the epitome of Americana, down to the delicious food and drink and the rocket-propelled trucks. More seriously though, they showcase the adventurous, independent spirit of the American past and its embrace of family, community, and patriotism.

And if you don’t believe me, why not see for yourself? We’re in the heart of airshow season, all around this glorious country. So go out, grab a seat and a hot dog, and turn your face to the sky to experience one of the last true spectacles of American culture.

(P.S. Don’t forget the sunscreen!)

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