Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Ship of Theseus

The Ship of Theseus, ever heard of it?  It’s a subject of philosophical debate which reaches back through the centuries.  The key question being, “If every piece of a ship is replaced, is it still the same ship?”  Sound familiar?
If you’ve been involved with aviation for any amount of time, you have experienced this conversation.  The sport of flight may consist of everything from powered parachutes to private jets but everyone loves vintage planes.  It’s natural.  Aviators are inherently sentimental creatures, and every old flying machine is a potential subject of attachment.  The heart of a romantic knows no boundaries.
But why would someone feel connected to an object?  This too is a common subject of debate.  And yet, it also holds the answer to so many of aviation’s recent dwindlings.  If you understand it, things begin to make sense.  Solutions are easy.  We’ll get to that in a minute.
Have you ever felt an attachment to an object?  Yeah?  Me too.  It’s always been with something which has a story to be told.  Perhaps that is why another popular version of The Ship of Theseus is George Washington’s Axe.  If the handle has been replaced five times, and the head three, is it still George Washington’s Axe?

The greatest minds of philosophy have debated this through the ages, with each era having its own version.  Amazingly though, with all that power of mind, the debate rages?  Or does it?  I think not.
The solution is lies in the soul.
It's the same - No it isn't
How the greatest noggins in history could argue over such trivial things as planks of wood, and axe heads of steel, perplexes me.  There is no doubt in my mind it is the soul which makes something what it is, a ship of new timbers still the same ship. 
It’s why a lady, covered with the wrinkles of age, can radiate more beauty than a new model molded in ivory; how a threadbare coat can warm you like no other; the explanation for a vintage plane exposing, or metal alloy, but expressions of a soul.

Don’t believe me?  How then can it be that today we all still exist when there is not a single cell in our bodies that was with us when we were born?  We are walking, talking, breathing examples of The Ship of Theseus.  Every building block of our bodies has been replaced over and over. Yet, we are still here.  Clearly therefore, it is the soul which makes us who we are, something what it is.
So how then does this philosophical debate point the way to solutions for aviation’s problems?  Just as George Washington’s Axe is still his axe if the components were replaced due to the cutting of trees, aviation only exists when it exists as it was intended.
Before human flight came to be, people did not need to fly, they wanted to.  It was born from yearning, not necessity.  More specifically, it was bred from the desire to fly like the birds, escape the chains of earth, and experience the ultimate freedom.  Noted authors of the day described it well.  Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry possibly said it best, “I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things.”

Saint-Ex did not express that he flew because it got him from A to B in the shortest amount of time.  The famous author did not become a pilot because it was given to him freely or because it was the cool thing to do.  Instead, he looked deep into its eyes, saw the soul of the sport, and was captivated.  That is why his works are so cherished.  He felt the spirit of aviation and honored it. Today, we do not.

Have you ever wondered why it is that, as you walk down a line of vintage aircraft, some seem to reach out and grab you while other similar examples do not?  Humans have an acute but often unacknowledged perception of soul.  They can feel history and a sense of purpose.  They can also detect when something is gone.

The bones, in this case the airframe, are merely the vessel for the spirit of the machine.  Take away the spirit and you remove the soul.  This is what we’ve done to aviation and it is why some airplanes don’t “talk to you.”
We focus on the machine, electronics, flight plans, and safety.  None of these were intended for flight.  Airspace, regulations, and rules weren’t either.  That’s why aviation flourished before the CAA (predecessor to the FAA) and why in this hour it dwindles.  We are tossing the soul in favor of the bones.

Use an old plane as it was intended and it is alive.  It’s a ship sailing waters or an axe cutting trees.  Park it on epoxy, exchange charts for GPS, never fly it for fear of a breakdown, and it is dead.  To cross flat pastures or remote country roads without landing is a stab to its heart.  Fly straight and level, never allowing it go to bed dirty, and you’re denying it pleasure.  Don a helmet, wrap yourself in Nomex, and pull on the gloves and you’re treating it as a machine to be feared, not one to be enjoyed.   Restrict it from flight to ensure its safety and you’ve stolen a cool breeze from its skin. Planes and aviation must exist as they were intended or they are no longer that which they were.  If we understand this and accept it, we can fix aviation.

Where do we start?  To begin with we can trash the narrative of safety first.  Everything that was ever been great has been destroyed by the emotion of fear.  It is irrational, seizes our will, and consumes, from the inside out, all that it touches.  Aviation was the strongest when the danger was at its peak.  Just as there is no good without bad, a thing is not alive if there is no chance of death.
That’s not to say planes were designed to be dangerous.  They were designed to stretch the dimensions of our lives.  Put fear first, remove all risk, and you’ve removed their purpose.  One cannot experience a roller coaster from the ground, view the Grand Canyon from a quarter mile back, or enjoy the thrill of aviation when every conversation is about how to survive.
Next, we can make it a point to recognize those who live aviation the way it was meant to be.  No longer should we honor pilots for their fame or the creators of safety devices which remove flight from the equation.  Placing those who prefer to manage the decline of aviation on a pedestal should also be a thing of the past.
Instead, we must find the people who embody the true meaning of the sport. People who aren’t paralyzed by weather, folks who can fly without electronics, and pilots working two jobs to keep a homebuilt stitched together are perfect examples.  If you can find any of these traits in a person who also understands a plane can fly without a radio, you have your winner.  As for our leaders, only those who are willing to face the Hydra of regulators head on, with a constant force of pushback, should ever have their names spoken in public.

In regards to the flying Ships of Theseus, only those which are operated in a manner that honors their intent, and are restored and flown until they cease to exist should ever be given awards.   A sterile reflection of what was should never trump a flying machine that is.
And finally, when it comes to the most important factor in repairing aviation, you and me, we must consciously decide to embrace life, risk, and the pursuit of flight.  Never should we seek to restrict aviation due to the misfortune or mistakes of others.  The act of mourning the death of a fellow aviator must instead be practiced, nurtured, and learned to be celebrated as evidence of a person who lived.  A soul will wither and die if what it’s fed is fear.  If flying is to survive, we must instead feed ours the true spirit of aviation.


Terrry Bowden said...

Rich... You've just described our journey over the past year in getting the St. Louis Robin back into flying status. For 30 years... she sat dormant. Today... she is alive! It has been a spiritual experience to be involved in this wonderful aircraft!
Terry Bowden

N5740C said...

Hi Rich

This subject is one that I am very torn about. On the one hand, I agree with you completely. Airplanes were designed to fly, and the air is where they belong.

On the other hand, once they are gone, they are gone.

I remember well the day I went I went to the Planes of Fame airshow, back in the 1980's. At that time, they had restored and flew the only Zero with an original engine in the world. Even though I was thrilled to see the airplane in the air, I could not help but think: "if he rolls it up into a ball, that's it. There are no more"

Another example is (my favorite airplane, BTW) the Hughes Racer at the National Air and Space Museum. This airplane is as much a engineering marvel as it is an airplane. It is a work of art, created by skilled, loving hands. As much as I would love to see it fly, I don't believe or feel that anyone has a right to "risk" (yup, I used "that" word) the airplane.

Now, what Jim Wright did was absolutely amazing, and it is a huge shame what happened. I don't have any problem at all with that effort and Jim flying the #2 Racer. I would dearly love to see someone else build and fly one, but, leave the original on the "white epoxy" floor. After all, if years ago someone had flown and destroyed the original, Jim Wright and his group could not have built the #2 airplane.

Rich Davidson said...


Your sentiment is common. It's why we have museums full of multiple copies of rare airplanes with not a one being flown.
It's one of emotion. Yes, you would not want to take the Wright Flyer out and attempt to fly it. But there is nothing wrong with flying the only airworthy Zero when there is another sitting in storage (museum). And I would also argue there is nothign wrong with flying the only one. In storage they do not inspire. And yet in storage someday they too will cease to exist. It's like restricting your kids to the house so that they can live. But, in the end, there is no way any of these planes but a handful will exist centuries from now. If for no other reason, the lack of storage space and what's hot and relatively new taking their place will bring about their demise. Go far enough into the future and they will have degraded away on their own. And yet, we can rebuild anything. If it crashes and it is truly wanted, it will be rebuilt. Sitting static is does nothing but serve as a trophy ignored by the masses.