Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Unplanned Obsolescence

Antiquity is strictly a point of view

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.

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