The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk saw its first flight in 1981, and retired from service as a stealth ground-attack aircraft in 2008.
Every so often, something will happen that reaches out and raps you in the noggin, and makes you realize how fast time is ripping past. And how quickly something that's familiar and simply secondhand to you becomes exotic and antique to a new generation. I've had a couple of those epiphanies lately.
The first was when I was doing an interview with a bright young couple who had brought their beautifully restored Cherokee to Oshkosh. At the time of the assignment, I was thinking, "What are we coming to that we're actually writing articles on an airplane as new as a Cherokee?" Then, in the course of the interview, one of those sudden time-passage realizations jumped up and bit me. The airplane, which was one of the first PA-28s produced and identical to those I first started instructing in, was 10 years older than either of its owners, and they were in their early 40s. I had to shake my head that even a Cherokee could be over a half-century old! That just didn't compute! How could that be true?
I did the math in my head: The PA-28 got its type certificate in 1960, so it probably flew in 1959. That's nearly 53 years ago! OMG!
The second reality check came when I looked around and realized that the F-117, easily the most otherworldly aircraft ever to fly, had been out of inventory for over three years. Even more amazing was that it was 27 years old at the time it retired! Theoretically, it's now eligible for gate guard duty and, although they're now being stored in protective hangars, the time will come when we might be seeing what looks like Darth Vader's personal hot rod on posts out in front of VFW halls.
These examples show that every single one of us eventually reaches a point (if we're lucky) when those things with which we're presently surrounded and those things that populate our memory are much older than we think they are. And generations that follow ours see them in an entirely different light than we do.
I can still remember the first time I opened the door of the Tri-Pacer I learned to fly in. It was so fresh off the production line that it had that new airplane aroma that makes airplanes smell differently than other machines. In my mind's eye, I see Tri-Pacers as nothing more than used airplanes. After all, they've been floating around the edges of my consciousness my entire adult life. The fact that one could be over 60 years old doesn't even enter my mind. However, intellectually I know that so many generations have come down the pike since that time, that to the majority of aviators today, it's past being seen as a classic, and is passing into antiquity. It's not a biplane, but to younger generations, it's close.
As far as that goes, the airplane I fly almost every day was built in 1974. Do the math: It will have its 40th birthday before long. That's nuts! How did that happen? Here's a better question: If it's still doing its job, what difference does it make how old it is? I can answer that: It makes no difference. None at all.
This question of how much age the artifacts in our lives have accumulated is of zero consequence if they still perform the functions we ask of them.
That's one of the beauties of aviation—at least when it comes to the hardware. Every airplane has a mission for which it was designed and, for the most part, those missions haven't changed enough to actually demand a new kind of airplane. The reason we go to a new airplane is usually because of comfort, speed, efficiency and mechanical upkeep. If we based acquisition decisions on how well it was doing the basic job, we'd never change airplanes.
If we're talking about learning to fly, for instance, how much have the requirements changed? Lift, thrust, drag and gravity haven't changed much since Wilbur and Orville's time. So, the only reason trainers have changed has been to increase the ease and cost of operation—nosewheels fly easier than taildraggers, small engines burn less fuel, etc. Past that, what do super sophisticated trainers teach better? An argument could be made that they're actually a downgrade in terms of teaching the basic skills (don't get me started).
And how about going places? On a 500-mile trip (the average general aviation trip), the difference between doing 150 and 200 mph is 45 minutes. Going 125 mph adds another 45 minutes. So, going 500 miles in a simple-as-a-ball-peen-hammer old Tri-Pacer that costs almost nothing to own or buy (relatively speaking) would get us there an hour and a half later than a brand-new, 200 mph hotshot that costs more than our house and more than our mortgage to own. Most of us are flying because we like to fly, so is it worth that much to shorten something we like to do by an hour and a half? The obvious answer is no.
So, should any of us feel bad that parts of our lives have the patina of age on them? No, because that patina only comes from experience. Should we feel old because portions of our memories are judged as antiquated by others? No, because each of those memories taught us something, and the more memories we have, the more we have to pass on.
If we're lucky, our mechanical and mental support systems are still doing their job beautifully. So, there's no reason to update either our hardware or our way of life. There's no reason to change because everything has molded itself to us like a well-worn pair of boots, and that doesn't happen overnight.
The first indication that I've decided things need changing will be when you see me mounted on a pole out in front of a VFW hall with pigeons perched on my head. That's when you'll know I'm officially retired.