Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Science, The Art, The Realities

Perfect airplanes usually exist only in the eye of the beholder

What we’re talking about is the art and the magic that’s an intangible but nonetheless important ingredient when creating inanimate objects that gain life through the excitement they inject into our senses. Case in point: I’ll forever remember the first chord I played on a friend’s 1927 small-body Martin guitar (000-42 for those who care). I was stunned! Absolutely stunned! Although it was the same size and shape as a number of my own instruments, it was so much more alive and had so much more voice that it crawled inside me and vibrated in a way that I’ve never again felt in my more than 50 years as a serious musician. Now every instrument I handle seems dead and dreary by comparison.

The same thing happened 30 seconds into my first flight in an F8F Bearcat: This wasn’t just an airplane that behaved like a projectile; this was a piece of aluminum art. Every aspect of its being dovetailed with those receptors within me that I use to judge airplanes, and literally screamed, “Perfect fit!” Leroy Grumman’s boys had somehow managed to transcend the numbers and the hardware to create an aeronautical device that was part airplane, part flying carpet and all magic. It was, to my taste, the perfect airplane, and I was in awe of it. I still am.

As I was in the process of gaining the skills that would be required to design and build my dream airplane, I had several experiences like the foregoing. Each reminded me that my tastes are so specific, I’d be dead wrong to think I could bring my dreams to life through a design of my own. I’ve seen the art others have incorporated into their creations, either by design or luck, and I know for a fact that it would be a cosmic accident if I were to hit the mark with my own design. I don’t want to invest the time designing and then building to come up with anything short of perfection.

I still doodle airplanes, but now I’m just doodling—not seriously dreaming. It took a while, but I now realize that when designing living entities such as airplanes and guitars, the art and black magic involved easily humble the supposedly immutable laws of physics. No one knows exactly why, which is just fine with me. I don’t think mankind is supposed to have all the answers anyway.

Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII and CFIA, and aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Visit his website,


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